I planted my first hops more than 20 years ago. At the time, I was a young, budding herb enthusiast, not entirely aware of the plant’s place in the herb garden. I planted it for the ignominious reason of covering an old rusty fuel tank sitting right in the middle of the farmyard. The only thing I knew about it was that it was used in beer. That was the beginning of a long relationship with the bitter herb.
I’ve since come to know hops in great variety. A number of years ago, before the craft beer revolution became the craze it is today, I was introduced to the then small world of craft beer. It was there that my hops education began. I’ve traveled the country in search of beer, tasting 77 different styles of beer from a total of 648 different breweries, from all 50 states, and 56 different countries. I’ve obsessively taken notes and recorded more than 3600 reviews of the beer I’ve tasted. In that time I’ve learned that all hops are not created equal. The number of hop varieties used in brewing is more than 170, with several new varieties being developed every year.
Hops (Humulus Lupulus), a hardy climbing perennial, produces annual bines (yes – bines not vines) reaching up to 25 feet a season. Each fall the plant dies back to a crown of rhizomes, from which the plant can be propagated. Hops are dioecious, male and female, the female plant producing the flowers, also referred to as cones. Hops are native to the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, and were first noted in history by Pliny the Elder during the first century. Despite this early mention in history, hops didn’t make any notable appearances until the eighth century in France, and again in the twelfth century in Germany when hops began to be used in the making of beer. Prior to its use in beer, hops was a wild plant used as a vegetable and for its medicinal properties.1
Hops is a relative newcomer to the world of traditional medicine, Historic references to its medicinal use aren’t found until around the fifteenth century. After that time, we begin to see it referenced for use as a digestive aid, diuretic, cleansing the blood, liver, and spleen. As history progresses into the nineteenth century, we also see it used as an antibacterial, a tonic for digestion, for inflammation, restlessness, as a sleep aid, and for a whole host of other minor complaints. There have been a few modern studies conducted on the medical efficacy of hops as a sedative, and quite a bit of anecdotal evidence of hops being effective as a digestive bitter, and for possible estrogenic activity. 2
From a personal standpoint, I’ve had good results using hops as a mild sleep aid, along with passionflower. I prefer to use it in tincture form, but many herbalists make dream pillows, stuffing small pillows with hops.
If you were to do a quick internet search for hops’ use in beer, you’d end up with information overload. Looking up its use as a folk remedy would yield some quick results also. However, you would find very little on its use as food. To the best of my knowledge, there are no hops cookbooks on the market, and I’ve only run across one mentioning hops as a vegetable.
With interest in craft beer gaining momentum, driving the growth of new breweries and hops farms at a staggering pace, home brewers, breweries, gastro pubs and chefs alike have begun looking to hops for new uses. As a local chapter leader of a national women’s craft beer organization, Girls Pint Out, I’ve had the opportunity to become acquainted with many of the hop growers, brewers, and bar and restaurant owners in my local community. It was at a recent Purdue University hops growing workshop, that a group of us discussed the potential of using hops in food. Having experimented with hops in my own kitchen, I was able to share some of my own experience, and also walked away with quite a bit of new information and plenty of ideas for further experimentation.
Three parts of the plant can be used in food: tender young shoots in the spring, tender young leaves, and the cones, which ripen in late summer or early fall, depending on the variety. To date, I’ve not run across any use of the rhizomes in cooking.
In the spring, the first few bines to develop are bull shoots. Bull shoots do not produce high yields of cones, so are trimmed out within the first couple of weeks. The shoots that develop after the bull shoots are trained upwards, and produce flowers more heavily. However, it takes a lot of shoots to have enough for a recipe. The home grower, with only a few plants, is going to be hard pressed to gather enough for more than one meal, and would most likely need to harvest more than just the bull shoots. Hops shoots have been pronounced the “the world’s most expensive vegetable”, coming in at over $1000€ per kilo – that’s about $500 per pound! Some sources cite hops shoots here in the States at $128 per pound, but I’ve never seen them in my grocery store or farmer’s market.
Tender young hops shoots are much like asparagus, and can simply be sautéed with a little olive oil or butter, garlic, salt and pepper. Hops shoots can also be pickled, included in egg dishes such as quiche or frittata, or rice dishes like risotto or pilaf.
So far, my only experiment with hop leaves has been using tender young leaves for stuffed hop leaves, as opposed to stuffed grape leaves. I did find one recipe online for hop leaf pasta dough. I’ve made green pasta from chlorophyll extracted from spinach leaves, so I find hops leaf an intriguing possibility.
The bulk of my experimenting has centered on using hops cones as a flavoring. Without getting bogged down in the science, hops flowers are divided into two categories: bittering (high alpha acid) and aroma (low alpha acid). For the sake of cooking, I suggest the use of aroma hops (ie. Amarillo, Saaz, Willamette), which will impart a bit less bitterness, and more aroma and flavor than bittering hops. The flowers can be used in several forms: fresh or dried cones, tincture or infusion, or hop pellets from your local home brew store. Because the season for hops flowers is short, I preserve them by making tincture, and drying. The oils in the flowers are volatile, so store the dried flowers in a zip bag in the freezer to extend shelf life. I do have some hop pellets, and am experimenting, but not yet entirely comfortable making recommendations for their use.
Use a light hand when cooking with hops flowers. The flavor can be incredibly strong and bitter, so think of it as a spice or a seasoning. The point is to enhance, but not overpower. Also, the alpha acids in hops flowers are hydrophobic and bond with fat molecules, so the flavor is easier to manage in fats.
Try infusing honey and honey mustard with hops, or using hops tincture as a bitter in cocktails. I love homemade lemonade with hops. I add a little more hops than in the following recipe, and drinking a glass usually makes me feel sleepy.
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 ½ cups water
¼ cup simple syrup
2 teaspoons hops tincture
Hops Ice Cream
3 cups half and half (or 1 ½ cup cream and 1 ½ cup milk)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Handful of fresh hop cones
Combine half and half, sugar, eggs, and vanilla in a heavy bottomed pan. Gently heat the mixture over medium, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Heat until mixture thickens slightly, but don’t bring to a full boil.
Place hops into the hot mixture to infuse. This next step is important. At about 15 or 20 seconds, taste the mixture. Continue tasting until it reaches the desired flavor, and then immediately remove the hops. The cream mixture pictured took about 30 seconds to \ attain an herbal hoppy flavor without any significant bitterness. The exact time is going to depend on personal preference and the variety of hops being used.
Cool mixture in refrigerator until 40°F or below. Churn according to ice cream machine directions. Ripen ice cream in freezer overnight for best texture.
1. The Short and Bitter History of Hops, David Martorana, Philly Beer Scene, April/May 2010 Edition.
2. Hops (Humulus lupulus): A Review of its Historic and Medicinal Uses, Uwe Koetter, Martin Biendl, HerbalGram. 2010; American Botanical Council