Hops – More Than Just Beer

Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 08:24 pm

True hops (Humulus lupulus) is a climbing plant that is not only cultivated, but can also be found growing wild in riparian forests and forest edges. This perennial climbing plant has some botanical features to offer. The hop plants’ tendrils, covered with stiff climbing hairs, are right-twining, which is rare. The rapid growth of hop plants is impressive. Within one summer, the plants can climb six to nine meters. When the hops sprout from the rootstock in spring, they set an incredible pace – they grow 30 centimeters a day. No other plant in Europe is that fast.

True hops belong to the hemp family, so they are a close relative of hemp. Hops are dioecious, which means that there are male and female plants. Only the female ones form the coveted hop cones, called “hop cones”. The cones are light green and bear bracts that lie on top of each other like roof tiles. The flowers of the male plants are greenish-yellow panicles that look quite inconspicuous.

Hops - More Than Just Beer

There are numerous varieties of hops. An overview of hop varieties native to Europe alone can be found, for example, in the CMA’s hop variety folder.

Hops – beer spice of the monks with a deadening effect

Beer is an ancient beverage that can look back on a history of over 6000 years. However, hops have not been in beer for very long. It was probably the Benedictine monks who discovered hops for brewing beer in the eighth century. For a long time, the plants had competition from other beer herbs, because at that time people also used henbane, tansy, dost, St. John’s wort and yarrow. It was not until the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 that hops and beer became inseparable. The hops not only give the beer the aroma, but also improve the foam strength and shelf life.

The fact that the monks favored hops in particular had certain reasons. These make the regular consumption of beer worth considering. At the time, hops had a reputation for dampening men’s sexual excitability, which was supposed to facilitate compliance with celibacy. This side effect of beer on men is attributed to the estrogen-like active ingredients of hops. There is a nice poem on this subject:

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“A cool blond beer
harms neither him nor her.
But if he drinks more of it every day
it will harm him very much:
a thick round ball belly, ‘nen gentle bosom he also gets
and sex with women is no fun,
so I advise you: One measure is enough!”

Hops can be used like asparagus

What few people know: Before the hop plant made a career as a beer ingredient, it was used by gourmets. Even the Roman Pliny describes hops as a delicacy. The Italian physician Mattioli praised it in the 16th century: “In spring, the gourmets have the young hop shoots prepared for salad.” What is meant by “hop shoots” are the young shoots of hops. They sprout from the rootstock from mid-March to mid-April. There can be over 100 root sprouts per rootstock. Because the white, underground shoots are used like asparagus, they are also called “hop asparagus”.

You can cut the root shoots raw in salad. However, the hop shoots taste best when steamed in butter for a few minutes. In this form, they are wonderful as a filling for pancakes. The taste is unique and lies somewhere between broccoli and asparagus.

Hops – preparation of the root shoots

As soon as the hop shoots sprout from the ground in April, they first appear reddish and then turn green. These thin, delicately leafy sprigs can also be used in cooking. They are now somewhat reminiscent of spinach in taste. Older shoots quickly become unpleasantly bitter and woody.

The hop cones ripening at the beginning of September are suitable not only for medicinal purposes, but also for liqueur production. The dried hop cones quickly break down their active substances during storage, which is why they should not be stored for more than a year.

Hops – soothing and sleep-inducing

In the Middle Ages, hops were mainly considered a diuretic and blood purifying medicine. It was not until the 18th century that its importance as a sedative came to the fore. Today, the relaxing and sleep-promoting effect is the main use of hop cones in herbal medicine. Hops are therefore prescribed for sleep disorders, but also for inner restlessness, tension, nervousness and stress. It is particularly effective in combination with valerian, especially if you have problems falling asleep.

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In folk medicine, hops play a role in loss of appetite and digestive problems because of the bitter substances they contain. In gynecology, hop cones are used for their estrogen-like properties in menopausal disorders. The estrogen-like effect was noticed earlier, when hop picking was still done by hand. Women pickers observed increased bleeding and menstrual disorders during the harvesting period.

The substance that interests brewers is primarily responsible for the plant’s medicinal effect: the golden-yellow glandular meal that forms on the inside of the hop cones’ bracts, which are arranged like roof tiles. This is where the most important active hop substances are stored, namely the bitter resin with the hop bitter substances humulone and lupulone, as well as the aromatically fragrant essential oil. In hop-growing areas, strict care is taken to ensure that no male plants grow nearby, because fertilized female flowers would produce less bitter resin.

Use of hops as a decoration for the garden.

Perennial, hardy hops are a wonderful, fast-growing plant for the garden that can be used to add greenery to trellises, screens and rose arches. It also has additional uses as a vegetable – through the hop sprouts – as a medicinal plant or as an ingredient in home-brewed beer. It is important to get the female plants, otherwise the harvest of hop cones will fail. The male plant is used only as an ornamental plant in the garden.

When to plant hops?

The best time to plant the hops is spring. Planting at the time of autumn is also possible. In Europe, there are several varieties that contain many aromatic and bitter substances, such as “Hallertauer” or “Tettnanger”. If possible, harvest the hop cones in late August to early September. If they are allowed to ripen too much, they will lose active substances and aroma.

Recipes and further information about hops

Both the hop cones and roots can be used in a variety of ways. Here are some recipe ideas and another tip that promises a royal sleeping experience.

Recipe for the tea mixture “Beautiful dreams” from hops

50 g hop cones
20 g lemon balm leaves
20 g valerian root
10 g lavender flowers


Pour a cup of hot water over two teaspoons of the mixture and steep for ten minutes.
Drink one hour before going to bed.

Recipe for hop asparagus

Hop sprouts
Herb salt


Cook hop sprouts in boiling vegetable broth for one to two minutes.
Then briefly toss in butter in the pan and season with cream, herb salt and pepper. Ideal as a filling for pancakes.
Recipe for hop liqueur
60 g hop cones
500 ml vodka or grain
one vanilla pod
zest of one organic lemon
80 g sugar
100 ml of water

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Put hop cones, lemon peel and finely chopped vanilla in a sealable glass and pour alcohol over it.
Leave to infuse for two weeks and filter.
Boil sugar in water and mix into the hop extract when cooled.
Bottle and let mature for two to three weeks before drinking.

Instructions for a royal sleeping pillow

The English King George III, who was plagued by insomnia, was prescribed a hop sleeping pillow in 1787 and from then on did not want to go without it for a single night. It probably did him good.

  • What you need
  • a small pillowcase (approx. 20 x 20 cm)
  • Absorbent cotton
  • Hop cones
  • Lavender flowers

And this is how it works

Fill the pillowcase with a mixture of cotton batting, hops cones and lavender flowers.
The effect lasts for about four to five weeks. After that, you should refill the pillow.

Note: This article was prepared with the utmost care. However, the author is not a doctor or pharmacist. The information given in the article is not to be understood as health advice. Therefore, please discuss any application of the tips with a health reference with your family doctor.


  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.

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