Brews News: fun facts about hops

Some of that locally crafted beer you drink over the next few months also may contain locally grown hops. With the support of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, more and more WNC farmers are experimenting with the crop.

Although hops have been successfully cultivated in the Western parts of the U.S. for decades, growing hops in the East has proved problematic because the crop often succumbs to excessive moisture and disease. However, a number of regional farms have invested three or more years in this project, including Echoview Farm in Weaverville and Hop ‘n Blueberry Farm in Black Mountain. These farms are successfully growing some varieties, such as Brewers Gold, Centennial and Cascade, in our dampish mountain climate. Echoview is in the process of building an oast — a kiln for drying hops — which will make it even easier for the local breweries to utilize local hops.

So ask at your local brewery to see if they’re using local hops, and if so, in which brews.

Here are some fun facts about hops and the hop bine (not vine) for you to impress your friends while you’re drinking those beers:

• Hop is the flower of the female hop bine (it’s part of a small family of flowering plants called Cannabaceae — yes, its cousins are hemp and marijuana).

• The hop bine is a perennial and takes up to three years to mature.

• Most beers brewed today contain hops, but that wasn’t always the case. Early brewers flavored their beers with a variety of herbs and plants such as rosemary, coriander, ginger, juniper berries, or an herb mixture called gruit.

• Historians think that the reason hops were first added to beer was for the flower’s antiseptic properties, not for its bittering flavor. Hops prevent beer from spoiling, so brewers could correspondingly lower the alcohol content. This meant they could use less grain in the brewing process and thus make more money off their concoctions.

• Germany still leads the world in hops production, and, in fact, the first documented instance of hop cultivation comes from the early 700s in the Hallertau region the country. Hallertau hops are highly prized worldwide by today’s brewers.

• However, it wasn’t until the thirteenth century that hops started to become more prevalent than gruit (see above) in Germany for flavoring beer.

• In Britain, hops have been used consistently in beer since the 1500s, after being imported from Holland a century before that.

• Before mechanization, hop picking was highly labor intensive (still is for most small farmers). George Orwell wrote about itinerant hop pickers (often called hoppers) in England in his novel A Clergyman’s Daughter.

• Hops are also used medicinally as a sleep aid. A popular folk remedy for sleeplessness is filling a pillow with hops. Many farms in the Appalachian region kept a hop bine for this reason.

• Local hop farmers have actively searched out Appalachain hop bines to try to figure out what variety of hop might grow best in the region. At present, WNC is the southernmost area of the U.S. producing hops successfully.

• Most U.S. hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, where a tradition of family hops farms dates back to the 19th century (Oregon, Washington and Idaho produce the majority of the crop).

• About 60 percent of U.S. hops are exported to breweries worldwide.

• There are more than 75 varieties of hops.

• Hops can be toxic to dogs. Don’t let your dog eat spent grains from brewing — they can cause malignant hyperthermia, leading to a high temperature and death. 

• There was a worldwide hops shortage for a few years ago because of severe weather in Europe and a previous glut that led to decreased production. Worldwide hops production has since rebounded. The hops shortage caused the price of hops to increase and was particularly tough on small craft breweries (I blame the hops shortage on the death of the $2 pint).

• In addition to brewing, hop bines and fruit can be used for wreaths, paper-making, textiles and other crafty endeavors. Echoview Farm also is opening a LEED-certified fiber mill to produce fiber from their hop bines in the fall of 2011.

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