Kathy Conner Cornell
VCE Southside Master Gardener
When I think of St. Patrick’s Day my thoughts generally turn to beer. St. Patrick’s Day always meant a big celebration in the Baltimore area. Most any tavern or restaurant would be serving up corned beef and cabbage and green beer and often have a musical group playing Irish tunes. I do miss those celebrations. But let’s talk about beer, more specifically a main ingredient, hops.
Hops, Humulus lupulus, have a rich and long history. Romans used the shoots as a vegetable. The Babylonians used hops to brew a strong beverage. There was mention of a hops garden in Europe as far back as 735 AD. According to “Native American Ethnobotany”, the Cherokee used hops as a sedative, to relieve pain and to reduce kidney inflammation. Some Native Americans used it to make bread rise. First mention of hops being added to beer as a preservative was in 1079 and it is still used today to add flavor and preservation.
This is called a downhill harp, a unique design by Cormac O’Kelly. This is the original harp made by O’Kelly in 1702. The harp was supposedly built from a tree from Noah’s time. The harp was officially adopted as the symbol for Guinness Brewery in 1862. It is also the official stamp of the Republic of Ireland.
Hop vines are dioceous meaning that female flowers and male flowers are found on separate plants. The female, the desired flower, produces a strobile, a cone like flower and is the part used in brewing and most herbal applications. It is a vigorous vine growing to 20 feet in a season and needs support for its twining tendrils. This perennial, like most herbs, needs well drained soil and full sun. Give it plenty of room and prune off dead material around Presidents Day to prepare for a fresh flush of growth in the spring. Seeds can be used for propagation but most often cuttings or runners are used.
If you would like to use the strobiles for wreath making, pick when they are still green and soft. You can also cut the vine and use the vine and strobiles for swags especially great for holiday decorating. Lincoln used a hops pillow to help him fall asleep and stay asleep.
This article wouldn’t be complete without some history about brewing. Prior to Medieval times, ale was made with “gruit”, a mixture of bitter aromatic herbs like mugwort, ground ivy, dandelion and wormwood. Surprisingly, even children drank weak ales because of contaminated water. Every good housewife knew how to make ale and did so on a regular basis. A downfall of gruit was that ale made with it had a short shelf life.
Although the use of hops isn’t a simple story, Germans started using it around the 12th century. These brews had the benefit of lasting much longer than gruit ales. Slowly the gruit ales were displaced by hopped brews. By the 17th century beers and ales were made from hops pretty much exclusively. Arthur Guinness started his brewery in 1752 in County Kildare and moved the operation to Dublin in 1759. Having been lucky enough to visit the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, Ireland, the magic that gives Guinness its wonderful taste and rich brown color is the barley. At the Brewery there were plates out so visitors could taste the ingredients, pre-Covid of course. The barley tasted just like a dark chocolate. Don’t worry, hops play an important role also.
Right now there is a resurgence in microbreweries therefore a local demand for hops. On the Virginia Cooperative Extension website are many articles and links about growing hops in the area. This one entitled “Hops in Virginia: A need to know information about the industry” is a good place to start. I am certainly enjoying tasting these craft beers at some of the local eateries and of course at Factory Street Brewing in South Boston. As the old Czech proverb says “A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it's better to be thoroughly sure.”
Generally, on the chalkboard listing the brews is ABV which is Alcohol by Volume. Often IBU is listed. This stands for the International Bitterness Unit which is the measurement of the bitterness of the brew which relates to the hoppiness. For example, an American Lager might have a IBU between 5 to 15 and an India Pale Ale (IPA) between 40 and 75. Just good to know if you want to get a brew with more punch.
Even if you don’t plan to harvest the herb, hops are still a great addition to the herb garden. Butterflies are attracted to the flowers and hops make a great screen to hide a neighborhood eyesore. They are virtually a no care plant. I’ve had mine for maybe 10 years and the only maintenance is the annual cutting back around President’s Day. So have a cold one and reflect on the history of this herb.