Potentially Aotearoa’s most widely consumed herb, hops not only flavour beer. You can also eat hop shoots or calm your mind with them. Words & Photos Marilyn Wightman
Hops are a bit like chives in that they are referred to in the plural version. Hops belong to the Cannabaceae family and if you are reading this and thinking ‘cannabis’ then you are right. This herb belongs to the same family group as marijuana. However, most similarities in how these two herbs grow ends there. (I hasten to add I have never grown the latter as it is illegal for home gardeners to do so in New Zealand. Ed note: To legally grow medicinal marijuana you need to obtain a licence.)
Hops, unlike their cousin, grow as a deciduous trailing vine. Dormant all winter, new shoots appear in spring and will rapidly grow. The herb is a vigorous climber and needs a tall strong trellis structure to support what becomes leafy vines. They do need plenty of space to grow. The Latin botanical name for Hops is Humulus lupulus. Lupulus translates to ‘wolf’ and the bristly stems of the vine have hooked, sharp hairs. The leaves, too, are coarsely toothed, so do take care when handling this herb as it does have the ‘bite of a wolf’.
This perennial herb is dioecious, meaning there are both male and female plants. The female hops plant is grown in New Zealand as this produces the needed ‘strobili’ (flowerheads). The hops industry in New Zealand has developed special tetraploid cultivars that are infertile. These are exclusive to commercial hop growers so those plants are not available to the home gardener – but ask at the local garden centre or herb society to find what is available in your area. There is a golden variety (Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’) much discussed in overseas magazines; alas, I am yet to find this available here in New Zealand.
Hops can easily be grown from root cuttings taken in autumn. Another good time to start this herb is when the plant is just emerging in spring. The tendrils, as they emerge, will wind around any support, and hops always grow in a clockwise direction. The mature hop plant in its second year will send up multiple shoots.
It is best to keep the hops plant isolated in a separate garden plot away from other herbs. The root structure goes underground and can spread several metres very easily. (The voice of experience here: my first hops were planted in the middle of a 6m long by 2m wide herb patch. Within four years, the hops roots were a nuisance as new shoots kept popping up. It took another two years to completely remove all these. By then, lesson learned, and the next hops were growing happily on their own dedicated trellis structure.)
One place that may suit is along a driveway fence that has a concrete area to discourage the root spread. Or a boundary fence may be the answer. Growing hops commercially is a highly specialised industry. The vines are planted in rows and trained to grow up ropes. These are suspended on wire trellises attached to a strong structure, able to hold up the weight of the crop.
Hops, with their vigorous growth, require rich soil, heavy in compost and fertiliser.
As summer nears its end (around now), the flowerheads are fluffy, green turning to brown, and these cones are ripe for picking. Harvested on a sunny day – they can be cut from the foliage and spread out on clean newspaper to dry. Store them in airtight containers until ready to use.
Hops are said to originate in North America and also Asia. There, they were used medicinally to treat insomnia and pain. Some records show they have been used for thousands of years. They were brought to Europe by the Romans and spread across the continent.
Hops were, and of course still are, used as the main flavouring for beer. By the 1500s, brewers of Germany, Holland and Belgium had emigrated and taken their beer-making skills to England. Traditionally, English inns served ale, not beer. It took another century for brewers to become accepted for making both ales and beers.
There was an unfounded myth that King Henry VIII banned the use of hops and beermaking. This has been disproved by modern researchers.
If you are not into beer drinking then there are other traditional uses for hops. This herb, like its cousin cannabis, is soporific, so it calms, relaxes and induces sleep. The aromatic cones can be sewn into sleep pillows. Another good calming herb to add is lavender. Young shoots can also be eaten in spring, in the same way we eat asparagus and fern shoots.
Ale is made with malt and a gruit (a selection of herbs that flavour the brew). Ale making has a rich history. The potency and taste of the ale often depended on the skill of the innkeeper and, in many cases, his wife. There are many herbs in folklore used in brewing, such as mugwort, alecost and alehoof.
Beer is made by adding hops to the malting process. Modern brewing has really taken off – brewers are now turning back to older herbs and including them in their craft.
Hops are available for the home brewer from specialised retailers.
Here is an unusual way to imbibe the flavour of hops in a delicious treat, courtesy of Chef Tino Roehnke of
Eruption Brewing, Lyttelton.
Makes 12 large cafe-style muffins
• 4 cups plain flour
• 2 tsp baking soda
• 8 tsp baking powder
• 2 cups sugar
• ½ cup chocolate chips
• ½ cup dried apricots, chopped
• 2 cups Hazy IPA (preferably Eruption)
• 1 tsp malt vinegar