A Splendid Vine

The hop (Humulus lupulus) crept into my consciousness as a plant rather slowly. Like most people I’m sure I first heard of it in association with barley and malt as the basic ingredients in beer. But it was on a visit to the Wagner Vineyards in Lodi in 1998 that I first saw it growing. The family had been growing grapes for decades and making wine for several years, but decided to open a brewery only in 1997. In a canny decorative move they had planted hops around the edges of their deck overlooking Seneca Lake. The plants were in full flower when we visited, so it must have been in late summer or early autumn.

The female flowers

Hops are dioecious, which means that there are separate male and female plants, and consequently morphologically different flowers on each plant. It is the female flowers that are used for virtually everything from beer-making to the preparation of herbal potions to ease stress. The genus Humulus is part of the Cannabacaeae family, which includes the illustrious Cannabis genus, the relaxing qualities of which are well known, and now increasingly legal.

The hop plant is a vine and an exuberant one at that. It can grow 25 feet in a single growing season. The leaves are luxuriantly palmate, and flowers hang from beneath the canopy of the foliage like pale green cones made of crêpe paper. In short, it is a picturesque addition to any public area.

The one drawback to the hop plant might be its allergenic properties. I am rather allergic to the stuff myself and unfortunately cannot drink more than a couple highly ‘hopped’ beers (e.g. India pale ales) without developing a crashing headache. I have a friend who grew up in the Yakima Valley of central Washington. As a teenager he worked in the fields picking hops, and the prolonged, continuous exposure caused him to develop a severe immunological intolerance to the plant and its derivatives. He is a devotee of fine wines, but he can’t drink beer at all.

Bines and trellises

Traditionally, hops are grown on “bines” suspended from trellises. The architecture of the trellis is variable, changing with historical period and geographical region. The common characteristic is sturdiness. When a plant can grow 25 feet in a growing season, it can get to be a heavy plant.

The hop has been a part of human civilization for over 2,000 years. Oddly enough the Egyptians don’t enter into the story of hops (they always seem to come up in other origin stories). Rather is the Babylonians who seem to have cultivated and used this plant in the production of some sort of beverage or another. The use of hops in Europe dates from the early Middle Ages (736 A.D.) in the Hallertau district of Bavaria. The communication of the beer-making wisdom from the Middle East to central Europe is apparently lost in the mists of history, but through the rest of the Middle Ages the use of hops spread steadily through the beer-drinking portion of Europe and the British Isles.

Before the advent of hopping beer was made with a mixture of herbs called a gruit, but Humulus displaced its predecessor for largely practical (i.e. commercial) reasons. Hops preserves beer, which meant that it was suddenly easier to store and transport over longer distances. The mercantile advantages are readily apparently. In addition to its stabilizing qualities, the addition of hops also had the effect of clarifying the brew.

Rhizomes of three varieties

From the point of view of a grower, Humulus is a headache. It is susceptible to all manner of predators, both microscopic and macroscopic. Failures of commercial crops are a regular occurrence, which makes the market for hops legendarily unstable. In the United States central New York State was the hops-growing capital for much of the 19th century, but a blight helped to end the hegemony of the region, which was also helped along by the early season warmth and general dryness of western growing regions in Washington and Oregon.

There has been a shortage of hops for the last few years, which has caused home brewers to increasingly turn to growing their own. Consequently, horticultural information regarding the rearing of hops, run-downs on the qualities of the numerous varieties, and blueprints for the construction of a trellis are ubiquitous on line. Given that large-scale monocultures are the cause of many agricultural blights, anyone who grows their own little patch of Humulus is much less likely to attract pests and much more likely to have a beautiful vine with imbricated, pendant flowers climbing all over anything it is planted next to.