Long before Jesus turned water into wine, perhaps as far back as 9000 BP, humans were making and drinking beer, or at least something similar. The brew has seen changes. Crack open a beer from 10th century England or 12th century Germany, for example, and most drinkers would immediately notice something missing. Hops. The rhizome first sprung up in central Asia over 10,000 years ago. By piecing together ancient folklore, we can trace human cultivation of the crop as it left Asia and moved into the area now known as Romania, where is was considered a delicacy and eaten much like we eat asparagus today.
Early Europeans also cultivated hops for its medicinal qualities. The plant was valued as a natural sedative—an effect anyone who has harvested hops can attest to—and used for liver problems.
Cultivation of hops continued to spread until, by about the 8th century, everyone from the Vikings to the Hungarians used the plant. In France, tenant farmers used it to pay rent to the monasteries. Meanwhile, with some rare exceptions, people still hadn’t thought to combine hops and beer.
Instead, flavor came to early European beer from gruit, a mysterious and changeable herb mix made of bog myrtle, rosemary, laurel leaves, alder bark, juniper twigs, acorns, mint, sage, ginger, anise, ground ivy, wormwood, yarrow, sycamore sap or other plants including henbane, a poisonous nightshade with psychoactive properties. Some attribute the horrific Medieval images of hell to beer-induced hallucinogenic trips.
The distinction for the first hops use in beer goes to the French Carolingian abbot Adalhard of Corbie in 822 AD. Written down in abbey books that year are clear instructions for the preparation of hops for the brewing of cervisia. Still, the idea didn’t catch on until about the 14th century. Then, the rise of large-scale beer production required a transition from gruit to the more efficient, highly productive and easily grown hops.
As an added bonus, brewers found that hops acted as a preserving agent. High-alcohol-content beers with lots of hops were soon being shipped long distances, say from England to India, where they arrived perfectly ready to drink. Thus, the India pale ale was born.
Today’s modern brewers can choose from more than 120 hop varietals. Popular varieties, like Cascade, Centennial and Chinook, are available, dried and ready, at homebrew supply stores. Hopheads are also experimenting with growing their own.
Hops grow well in Utah. According to Fritz Kollmann, horticulturalist at Red Butte Gardens, growing hops in your backyard doesn’t even require a green thumb, just a homebrewer’s will. Kollmann offers some tips to make your garden-to-brew experiment a little easier:
Start your plant from a rhizome, or rootstock, just like asparagus and raspberries (certain varietals are for purchase each spring from The Beer Nut on State St.). Plant while weather is still cool and wet. Bury your rhizome to a depth of one to two inches. Mulch with straw, leaves or grass clipping to preserve moisture.
You can also try starting your plant from a cutting of an existing hop. In spring, take the tip of a vine, tear off the leaves and bury, tip down. Use rooting hormone to give it an extra boost.
Hops are hardy. They enjoy full sun, but will grow under most conditions. They like nitrogen and will appreciate some nitrogen supplements. They have no specific soil preferences or requirements. They do like water. In their first year, as roots get established, water plants frequently (two to three times a week) but for short durations. After their first year, less frequent but deep watering is preferred. Drip irrigation is an excellent choice for watering hops.
Hops are a fast-growing vine. Each year they will grow from a sprout to 20 feet tall in about six weeks. Give them a sturdy trellis or fence to climb, away from smaller, delicate plants.
Hops should produce cones their first season and will produce more in subsequent years as the plant matures. Expect about two pounds of dried hops per plant.
Hops can live a long time, sometimes as long as 20 years.
The plants will self-propagate by moving roots underground, but they are easy to control through seasonal pruning or by digging up volunteer shoots that establish outside the planted area.
Katherine Pioli is a Catalyst staff writer.