Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 476-A   January 13, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Hops have been used, for flavor, in the brewing of beer since the 6th century B. C. in Egypt and probably long before that. By the 9th century A. D. they were being cultivated in the Hallertau region of southern Germany because beer, brewed in every well-operated monastery, was more than a beverage; it was important as a food in those days. In the 16th century hops were being cultivated in England and they were brought here, to Virginia, in 1648.

The hop vine is a perennial plant native in Europe, western Asia, and possibly England. It is peculiar. Its stems are hollow and angular but not woody; and they are equipped with stout hooked hairs which enable the vine to climb a pole or string to a height of 20 or 25 feet -- always in a counterclockwise spiral (from left to right). Most climbing plants spiral clockwise. Another peculiarity is that, like some of its close relatives -- hemp, the mulberry and the osage orange trees -- the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants.

If fertilized by pollen from a male, a female flower develops a small seed enclosed in a cone of loose papery leaf-like scales. If not fertilized, it bears the same kind and size of cone -- often 2 or more inches long -- but no seed. The cone is known as a "strobile". It is the scales that make hops valuable for brewing various kinds of beer, ale, porter, malt extract and some "soft" drinks. When mature, the outer surface of each scale is covered with sticky yellow dust-like grains called "hop meal" or "lupulin". These grains contain a volatile oil, a non-resinous bitter substance, resin and tannin. The oil gives the strobile its distinctive aroma. The other substances furnish the bitter flavor which, mild or strong according to the type of beverage, is desired.

Practically all of the hop produced commercially in the United States today, are grown on large "hop ranches" along the Pacific coast in Oregon, northern California and Washington; also, recently, on irrigated desert lands in Idaho. The plant requires a deep rich soil which must be well-drained. It needs abundant moisture, an average temperature of 60 F and freedom from strong winds during the growing period, and lots of sunlight during the ripening period in August. In fact, climate determines the variety of hops that can be successfully grown in any region, and also the quality of the fruit produced.

Hops are grown from cuttings, not from seed. The cuttings, called "setts", are taken from the bottom portion of last year's "bines" -- an unfamiliar word which means "the twining stem of the hop". A variant of "bind", it also occurs in "woodbine". After a year in nursery beds, the "setts" are planted 6 or 7 feet apart in long straight rows which are also 6 or 7 feet apart. They don't grow very tall the first year but attain their full height the second year and climb on tall poles or on stout strings supported by an overhead system of wires.

In Europe, the ripe hops are picked by hand. In this country they are picked mostly by machines that travel between the rows day and night, rain or shine. From the field they go to kilns ("roast houses" in England) to be dried. The drying temperature determines the value of the hops -- it must not exceed 110 F and should be less. A new process, using blowers to circulate air at outdoor temperature, produces the highest quality hops, because none of the oils and resins are lost. After drying the hops are compressed in bales for shipment.

One Chicago brewery uses mostly Idaho hops but adds some imported from Germany. Other breweries in Chicago and Milwaukee get most of their hops from Oregon, California and Idaho -- in that order. It all depends upon the brewmaster and a secret formula handed down by his grandfather.

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