A Valentine day special – more plant based porn, I bring you the tale of hops.
According to the old saying ‘hops, reformation and beer all came to England in one year’, that of 1524. This is in fact not true, as demonstrated by the Worcestershire village of Himbleton that derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon for hop yard. The hop is indeed the only member of the Cannabis family, which is considered native to Britain, and like its more exotic relative it is also said to have mind-altering properties. The fact that we fail to appreciate these more subtle influences is probably because they are frequently swamped by the effects of alcohol with which hops are usually associated. However, this has not always been the case, and it is likely that hops were first cultivated for their ‘herbal’ properties or at least for its antiseptic abilities to prevent bacterial spoilage of food. It is highly likely that hops were first added to beer as a preservative rather than for their distinctive flavour. Although the hop is probably native and its use in brewing said to be ancient, with the first reference to hopped beer attributed to the Finnish saga the Kalevala, which dates from 3,000BP, within Britain the use of hops did not become common place until fairly recently. Henry VI outlawed the cultivation of hops. Henry VIII forbade brewers to put hops and sulphur into ale, and Parliament petitioned against ‘a wicked weed that would spoil the taste of the drink and endanger the people’. Not until the seventeenth century did the cultivation and use of hops in brewing become widespread in Britain.
Hops and cannabis both occur as separate male and female plants. The hop is a tall vine, which climbs clockwise to six metres, through other vegetation in the wild or in cultivation up wire frames. Both hops and cannabis plants are covered with resin glands that secrete aromatic oils, whose complex chemical properties have been the attraction behind the cultivation of these species. In both crops, years of selection by growers has resulted in cultivated varieties with much higher yields of resin than their wild ancestors. These resin-producing glands are not randomly located about the plants but are concentrated around the flowers, particularly the female flowers. In fact technically the term Ganja refers only to the flowering tops of the female cannabis plant. Thus, although Jamaican law was amended to extend the definition of Ganja to cover all parts of the plant, it remained technically only illegal to cultivate the female of the species. And since there is no test to determine if the resin is derived from a male or female plant, this provided a legendary loophole.
In hops the female flowers grow in clusters surrounded by leafy scales, the whole structure being termed a cone or catkin. Hop growers cultivate only the female plants. In Germany growers have been known to exterminate male plants in the wild to preserve the virginity of their cultivated female catkins. Their reason for doing so is that they consider that the female flowers in seed have a poorer taste than the unfertilised flower. Furthermore, hop seeds are also reputed to interfere with the fermentation process in bottom fermented larger beers. In Britain, ales are traditionally top fermented with a different strain of yeast, which is unaffected by the presence of a few hop seeds floating in the wort. Thus, British hops, unlike those in the rest of Europe are allowed an uninterrupted sex-life.
The use of hops as a garden herb is known to date from Roman times. Pliny, the great Roman chronicler, explains that its Latin name Lupulus is derived from Lupus the wolf, because the plant embraces others as the wolf does a sheep. Since ancient times the plant has been ascribed many different medicinal properties. Its use in hop pillows is now about all that survives of this tradition and is related to its powers to cure insomnia, especially in men. It was also reputed to prevent premature ejaculation, but one cannot help wondering, if this is not perhaps a directly result of it inducing sleep. In contrast, in women, hops were said to act as an aphrodisiac; it is difficult to think of a more frustrating combination of powers.