You may be lucky enough to have a hop vine climbing around your balcony or on a nearby tree. If so, go pick some right now!
The hop is a hardy perennial creeping vine in the Cannabinaceae family. Yes, that means it’s closely related to cannabis. Despite the fact that the smell of fresh hops is reminiscent of da ganga, it’s a relaxing herb and will not get you high.
Hops (Humulus lupulus) have beautiful green-yellow flowers (strobiles) on the female plants which are best harvested for herbal uses before fully ripe and dried carefully, away from direct sun. They are papery when ripe and those are used for beer-making. To dry them, hang them up or place them in a basket so the pollen doesn’t fall anywhere unwanted (the pollen is actually the source of many of the desirable constituents). Once they’re dried store them in airtight jars and keep them in the fridge for tea, tinctures, pillows or smokes. The acids and oils in hops do deteriorate over time and will keep up to 2 years if you can vacuum pack them and store them in the freezer. Otherwise, for best results use within 6 months.
Hops have sedative and hypnotic actions and they have been used for centuries as a remedy for insomnia. They are a perfect straight-up bedtime herb. They have a relaxing effect on the central nervous system, reducing tension and anxiety throughout the body and can be helpful when physical tension is causing other problems like insomnia, headaches and indigestion such as nervous diarrhea. Hops have also been used to treat digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease thanks to the combination of the antibacterial and anti-inflammatory actions of components lupulone and humulone along with the relaxing effects (most likely due to the valeronic acid).
Hops also have estrogenic substances which is why beer can dull sexual desire (ever heard of ‘brewer’s droop’?). It’s been reported that female hop pickers can suffer disruption or complete absence of menstruation due to the absorption of the oil through their hands. I, like many other herb lovers, support the production of herbal beers that reduce or eliminate the use of hops in beer for the sake of men’s health. I’m a fan of appropriate use of testosterone.
Roman records from the 1st century AD describe hops as a popular garden plant and the young shoots were sold in markets and eaten like asparagus. I’ll have to try that next year!
A Few Good Cautions
- Herbalists David Hoffman and Thomas Bartram recommend that hops be avoided in cases with marked depression as it can accentuate it due to its sedating qualities.
- A few people experience contact dermatitis from the pollen. If you do have a reaction, I suggest you consider avoiding beer. 😦
Hops in Beer
Hops are, of course, also used in beer-making where they have become an integral part of the flavour we have come to expect. Bitter and antiseptic herbs were an integral part of ye olde brewing, but the practice of using hops seems to have become commonplace more as a revolt against the financial monopoly the Catholic Church had over the ‘gruit’ (herbal and spice mix for brewing) industry. The production of gruit was controlled and licensed, its sale taxed, its use taxed and then the sale of the finished ale taxed again. The use of gruit was required by law in many regions of Europe to produce ale and the gruit formulas were closely guarded secrets. In the 16th century, merchants wishing to break this monopoly received support from the Protestant reformers who preferred the use of hops in beer-making as its effects were sedating and reduced sexual desire while the traditional gruit herbs produced highly intoxicating, stimulating and aphrodisiacal brews. Gruit was primarily a combination of three mild to moderately narcotic herbs: bog myrtle, wild rosemary and yarrow, combined with other adjunct herbs which often had psychotropic characteristics of their own. The full transition from stimulating herbs to the sedating hop took hundreds of years, but eventually the use of the old herbs fell out of practice and was actually banned in many places. As herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner says in his wonderful book, ‘Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers’, “The motivations were religious and mercantile, reasons not so different from the ones used to illegalize marijuana in the United States in the twentieth century.” He provides a detailed history of the use of hops and other fascinating details of brewing in this book which is also chock full of inspiring and ancient recipes (banana beer anyone?), so check it out if you want to try making a batch of beer with your own hops or other herbs. The book is always in stock at Banyen Books.
As an experiment, I made tea with a single fresh hop and was completely surprised by how tasty it was. I was expecting intense bitterness. But that only happened after I had drunk all but a few sips and then left it for about 30 minutes before noticing I hadn’t finished. I glugged it down and that was bitter! Although….I drank it anyway.
If you bring some hops home, you can make a serving of bedtime tea from a fresh flower. I used one small fresh flower in a large mug of freshly boiled water and steeped it for 10 minutes before drinking. You can make it stronger if you choose.
You can also smoke dried hops, which is a pleasant and relaxing herbal smoke according to the Sweet Smoke Shop. I haven’t tried it myself, but I am intrigued by the blends produced by Sweet Smoke. Smoking a plant is another way of experiencing its herbal effects. You could even just burn some on a fire or bundle some up in a stick with thread and burn it like you would a sage stick. The volatile oils and resins would make their way into your lungs. Hops are so pungent you don’t have to burn them to release them – you could try a hop pillow.
You can put dried hops in a cloth bag (or clean old sock – we all have loads of those) to make a hop pillow. Many people find hop pillows really helpful for inducing a restful sleep. This may be due to the valeronic acid, but the volatile oils (aromatic oils) can certainly affect the brain directly via the olfactory centre. No burning required!
A great way to preserve the active constituents is to make a tincture and if you want to take hops for their general effect on the nervous system, a tincture is an easy and immediate way of taking your medicine. A tincture is a concentrated liquid extract of soluble plant constituents preserving their vital properties. The concentration depends on the plant to solvent (alcohol) ratio. I’m not giving you the full science around tincture making because you can read about it in any of the herbal books that I’ve mentioned. For your personal use, it’s easy to make simple tinctures without worrying about the concentration. Just follow the standard dosage provided below (it is medicine after all) and then increase or decrease as needed to match the strength of your tincture. Stuff a 250ml canning jar (or smaller) with dried or fresh hops (you can use fresh since they don’t have much water content) and fill with vodka. Ideally, you will use 50% alcohol vodka for a more effective solvent action. Smirnoff Blue Label is the only kind available in Vancouver. Some plants (especially roots and barks) require 60-90% alcohol, so it’s best to do some research before tincturing a new plant. 75.5% alcohol Everclear can be bought in Alberta and Washington.
Hop Tincture Dosage: David Hoffman recommends 1-4ml of tincture three times a day.
The hops are out there waiting for you, ready and willing, so go get em boys and girls!