Hops Are Focus of Spring Symposium After Being Named “Herb of the Year”

Hops Are Focus of Spring Symposium After Being Named “Herb of the Year”

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

People who love craft beer most always have an appreciation for all four major ingredients – water, malted grain, hops, and yeast. Those people who prefer a malty beer still acknowledge the role played by hops, and hop heads recognize that the malt is still crucial to the finished product. But what about people who don’t necessarily follow or imbibe craft beer? It turns out that they can appreciate hops too. As evidence for this, if give you the Herb Society of Central Indiana, who recently named hops the “Herb of the Year” for their spring symposium.

As part of the symposium, herb growers were treated to a moderated discussion about the history, use, and growing of hops by a panel including Rita Kohn, Anita Johnson, and K.C. Lewis. I learned a lot about hops and just as much about the enthusiasm herb growers have for their hobby. This was a well-organized meeting with a silent auction, a breakfast buffet, and a merchandise section for growing and using herbs. It was just as official and thought out as any craft beer conference.

Hops was named as the herb of the year! Image credit: Herb Society of Central Indiana

What’s a hop? By the time I arrived, there was well over 200 people in the room finishing breakfast, and the symposium started soon afterward. The first to speak was Rita Kohn, author and Indiana craft beer legend. Her job was to introduce the crowd to hops as an herb, and to dispel the idea that they are somewhat less than other herbs because they are used in a product like beer.

The strategy that Rita used was to compare and contrast hops to a typical herb plant, basil. Based on a hand raising survey, almost everyone in the room grew basil, but only a few grew hops or knew much about growing them. Asking why this might be so, Rita pointed out that both basil and hops started out as medicinal plants, both are used in cooking, and both have calming/sedative effects.

Both basil and hops come in multitudes of varieties and they contain many of the same botanical compounds. In fact, there are some hops that are grown exactly because they have terpenoids similar to basil. (Rita didn’t mention it, but a basil gene was one of the pieces of DNA transfected into yeast by Dr. Charles Denby at UC Berkeley to produce an organism that gave off hop flavors for beer, see this article).

Just as people love to tweak herbs by genetic modification or more traditional means of selective breeding, the hop is also a subject of much manipulation to improve disease resistance, change flavor or aroma profiles, and even to change their physical characteristics. The two plants have all these things in common, yet basil is a widely accepted herb, while hops are an outsider when it comes to most herb gardens.

Hemp cloth can be made from a variety of plants, including hops. Did I mention that the closest botanical cousin to hops is cannabis? Image credit: got medieval

Rita went on to describe how herbs can have many uses, from food to textiles, from scent products to decorations, and the same is true for hops. She gave a recipe for scrambled eggs with crushed dried hops and parmesan cheese (some pizzerias are using crushed hops in lieu of dried oregano on pizza and [conservatively] in sauces). Hops boiled in lye to loosen the rind can be stripped, cooled, and woven into a hemp cloth – this goes back as far as the 1840s, and Rita told a tale from her childhood about her mother using wild hops to weave cloth for her pillow. Anita pointed out that since hops are a sedative and stimulate vivid dreams, Rita’s pillow was probably a great use for hops.

The point of Rita’s talk was to grow the interest in hops amongst herb growers, but I’m thinking the interest might already have been there. Over 200 people showed up for the symposium, and a fair number of them expressed that they were craft beer fans. However, there is that pesky issue of hops being climbing plants that aren’t the easiest things to grow. And this is where KC Lewis of Indy High Bines took over to talk about growing hops.

Commercial and Hobbyist Hops. The analogy between hops and basil kind of falls down when it comes to growing each of these herbs, so it was nice to have a commercial hop grower on hand to provide some tips. Indy High Bines officially started growing hops in 2014, and have proven to be quite adept at increasing yield and producing a quality product, made more amazing since none of the farm’s partners come from an agricultural background. They only started growing hops on a whim after seeing a History Channel documentary about the 2007-8 shortage in hops caused by bad weather in Europe and a fire in Washington state that destroyed a hops storehouse.

image credit: Indy High Bines

KC and Ryan planted just ten hop rhizomes that first year, but harvested more cones than could have been expected – this gave them the confidence to go bigger. Now they have 1.33 acres of hops, which may not sound like a lot, but is a very good amount for a growing farm in Indiana. KC took the attendees through what it takes to grow hops and some of the special features of the plants. Being a biology guy, I found it fascinating. Here are some of the interesting tidbits.

First of all, it turns out that hops (Humulus lupulus) are dioecious plants, meaning that they have separate sexes. Some plants are males and make male flowers with viable pollen but no way to seed, while the female plants produce flowers that can be fertilized and seed. The hop used in brewing are groups of 20 or so female flowers arranged in cone-like structures called bracts.

So when you see a hop farm, those are all female plants, with no male plants around at all. In fact, having male plants around is bad, because fertilized female plants that produce seeds cause the cones to have off flavors. There’s a long history of abbeys growing hops for beer – who knew that it wasn’t just the nuns and monks that were celibate, it was their hop plants as well.

KC took everyone through the process of getting trellises and soil ready to grow hops. That hop is a climber, but it isn’t a vine – it’s a bine. Vines have straight stems and appendages that coil around fences or ropes to cling. But bines have stems that do the twisting and clinging. The bine itself is fairly rough so that it can sensitively feel surfaces and it reacts positively to touching an object. This is called thigmotropism, with plant hormones (phytohormones) producing more growth on the side of the bine opposite the touch stimulus, forcing the bine itself bends to grow toward the touch. Amazing.

Trellises for hops come in many varieties. You can see why hobbyists might be intimidated. image credit: Growler Magazine

Because of this need to climb, trellises are built with ropes that are knotted to a wire strung along the top of the poles and stretched down to the plants as they break ground. Indy High Bines has poles that are 18 feet tall, so you can see that hobbyist herb farmers are biting off a big task when it comes to growing and harvesting hops. There can be one to several bines per rope, but they do need to have air movement and sun, so crowding can cut down on yield.

Another botanical feature of hops is that they will creep. The root is a deep tap root, so they like loose, sandy soil, but they will send out suckers that come up several feet away. This can crowd your other ropes, so all suckers have to be cut back as soon as the plants are seen to break ground each year. You plant the rhizome, not a seed, and they are perennial plants, so when you cut down the bine each year for harvest, you just have to wait for spring and they will show up again.

Finally, KC told the crowd that it’s the amount of daylight that triggers hops to flower. In Indiana, we get fewer daylight hours than in Washington or Michigan, so our hops will flower a bit earlier. What’s more, if you have a mild spring and the hops start growing early, the correct daylight trigger might actually stimulate flowering in the spring as well as fall.

The hobbyist might be happy with this, but commercial hops, grown for flavors and aromas, have to cut back this early growth. Hops need a lot of nitrogen fertilizer to grow well, but it throws off the flavors of the cones (they become oniony or garlicky) if the nitrogen is given too close to flowering time. This is why hop farmers stop fertilizing in July, ensuring the flowers won’t be adulterated. Geez, I hope you’re learning to appreciate your hop growers.

Alpha acids come form the “school bus yellow” lupulin gland inside the hop bract. image credit: EC Kraus

Hops in Beer and More. After a short break for silent auction bids and buying herb plants, Anita Johnson (former owner and the founder of Great Fermentations) took time from judging the Indianapolis rounds of the National Homebrew Competition to talk about hops in beer and other uses for hops. This was an introductory talk to let herb growers know how important hops are in beer and how hops in beer are related to herbs and beer.

Long ago, before hops were known as a beer ingredient, herbs like wormwood, heather, or sage were used for bittering beer. It wasn’t that people just loved bitter tastes; the main ideas was that malted grain released a lot of sugar, but beer from just it was plain and too sweet, there was a need for something bitter to balance out the sweet. By the 8th century, hops were being gathered in the wild or cultivated in religious communities.

Many of these monasteries made beer because it was safer than water. Hops were boiled to release the bitter compounds (we know them now as iso-alpha acids) and it wasn’t long before the nuns and monks realized that beers didn’t spoil as easily when hops were used. They didn’t know that the boiling had alot to do with it, but they did pick up on the fact that beer was healthier than water – and that beer with hops safer than beer without hops. This reinforced that the religious communities were blessed by God, and it made them a lot of money.

The red is microbial growth, the clear areas is where the hops (Chinook and Galena) have stopped the growth. Beer could save your life! photo credit: MDPI

Anita took all the herb growers through the ins and outs of alpha acids, isomerization to the bitter iso-alpha acids by boiling, and therefore the different times of boiling relating to bittering hops versus aroma or flavor hops (see this article). This related to her central theme that hops are in beer for more than just bitterness, including improving mouthfeel and creating a keeping a better head.

She told the story about the birth of the IPA and related how everyone has gone nuts for the IPA nowadays – 40% of craft beer sales are IPAs – I did not know that. Then Anita brought the conversation back to how hops fit in with other herbs. During the hop shortage that KC had mentioned, many of the beers that came to NHC for judging were gruits and other alternatively bittered beers. And they were good! People loved them, and nowadays more gruits and fraoch (heather) ales can be found, even though we’re not in a deep hops shortage.

All in all, it was a good morning with lots of learning. I think many people were inspired to start growing hops. This could directly affect the Indiana craft beer industry, since some of these growers could go commercial in the future. The only problem with the symposium – it was held at the 4H fairgrounds, so no beer was allowed. With all that talk about hops, I felt the need to “hop” over to Deer Creek Brewery for an IPA.

Thanks to Shirley Vargas of the Herb Society of Central Indiana for letting me come out to cover the event.


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