Hops – not only a bitter in beer

The hop cones have long been
used in medicine and as a taste
agent for beer.
Photo: Håkan Tunón.

The reason hops started to be used in beer making was not simply for the taste, but because in the old times there were no good methods for preserving beer. Salt was used to conserve fish and meat. All the salty food made people very thirsty but both beer and wine went bad quickly.

Thus one began to add bitter plants to make the beer more long-lasting and to delay the souring process. It was probably not just for conservation but also to conceal a bad taste. In the Nordic Countries, it was first mostly sweet gale, wild rosemary and yarrow that were used but, in time, hops entered the picture.

Hops as a sedative

The cones of hops have a tranquilising and calming effect and were therefore put into pillowcases. “Hop pillows” were used in field hospitals during the First World War as tranquilisers and sedatives. You can also drink tea made of hops to make you go to sleep more easily. Medical studies have shown that you drop off to sleep more easily and sleep better after taking hop extract. Pharmacies used to sell hop cones, but now they mainly sell hop extracts. The major use of hops is within beer brewing. In 2005, approximately 100 000 tons of hop cones were harvested worldwide. However, picking hops is no easy business since the cones can give rise to allergies.

Hops have also been thought to reduce the sexual drive, be antiseptic, give relief from cramp, improve the appetite, be diuretic and be efficacious against intestinal worms. Linnaeus wrote in his book of herbs in 1725 that “Hops soaked in beer in a bandage around the cheeks can eliminate toothache. ….. For tumours and ache, for people as well as for animals, or, if a member has been broken, smashed, twisted or disjoined, you should boil the hops in old, rancid butter and bandage it across, like a plaster.” If, in addition you want “to chase flies away you should boil the hops in sweet milk and leave it for the flies; if they sip some of that they get dizzy, drunk and die.”

The Chemical Layer of the Glandular Hair

Liquid essential oils are found in the glandular hairs of the female cones’ petals. They contain 15-30 % resins which consist of bitter substances, among others, humulone and lupulone. These bitter substances contribute to the aroma, smell and flavour. It is these that give the hops their mild tranquilising, sedative and antiseptic effect as well as stimulating the appetite and digestion. It has long been known that bitter substances stimulate appetite and digestion which is why we drink aperitifs and bitters. Jägermeister, Enzian, absinth, schnapps, vermouth and Underberg are examples of drinks that increase the stomach’s secretions of acidity and stimulate intestinal movement. More recently it has been discovered that bitter substances can stimulate the immune defence.

As long ago as the old Scandinavians …

Sweet gale was probably used already during the bronze and iron ages in Denmark to spice fermented drinks. A bucket made of birch-bark has been found with the dried residue of a drink consisting of cranberries, some wheat, glandular hairs of sweet gale and seed flour of the lime tree. The quantity of pollen grains (from honey) suggest that the drink was something between mead, a berry wine and beer. Additional finds of similar vessels suggest that the drink was common during the older iron age (approx. 200 A.D.). It was no doubt drunk on special occasions.

Hops were probably grown in France and Central Europe in the 8th century in small amounts. A deed of gift from 768 A.D. has been found that mentions a hops farm but Holy Hildegard was the first, around 1160, to write about hops being used for flavouring beer.  During the 1230s only sweet gale is mentioned at the Danish court. Hops had probably still not gained popularity in the Nordic countries at that time. In Sweden hops are first named in the provincial laws of Uppland and Gotland at the end of the 13th century.  Then in the 14th century they are mentioned in the Södermanna, Västamanna and Hälsinge Laws as well as in Magnus Eriksson’s National Law. Hops were probably being used in Sweden around 1250.

Monks brewed beer and King Gustav Vasa drank

Hop bines.
Photo: Håkan Tunón.

Hops were cultivated early on in monasteries. There are stories that claim that monks introduced the calming hops as beer flavouring instead of the stimulants sweet gale and wild rosemary. Beer brewing in Belgium is still closely associated to monasteries. Hops were intended to calm down the quarrelsome Nordic men and promote a quiet and virtuous lifestyle. Hops were scarce in Sweden and so in Kristoffer’s national law of 1442, farmers were required to grow 40 poles of hops.

During King Gustav Vasa’s time people drank at least a pitcher (2.6 litres) of beer a day because of the salty food – both men and women. Even before the end of the 16th century the commoners drank sweet gale beer and other substitute beers while the king’s men drank beer made of hops.

An edict was promulgated in 1583 at Nyköping Castle that beer was to be made of malt and hops. The farmers cultivated hops which the crown then impounded leaving the farmers to drink small beer, sweet gale beer and a juniper brew.

In 1568 King Johan III gave the order to enclose a large herb garden in Stockholm. It was expanded in 1619 to become a royal hops garden and it can be found on the city maps from the beginning of the 17th century. The name is even mentioned (Humblegårdeen, humbelgårdeen) in 1621 when a hired hand Lasse Mattzsson slew the “Hops’ Master” Daniell. Queen Kristina replaced it in 1648 with a pleasure garden. But the name “Humlegården” (Hops Garden) lives on although the area was only used for growing hops for 29 years, more than 350 years ago.

Linnaeus wrote in his 1749 diary about beer and he returned to the subject in a publication by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1763. He says that hops preserve the beer from souring by its bitter taste, that they have in themselves no intoxicating effect and that they help against kidney stones. Linnaeus thought that water from a well was the best drink but that did not prevent him from claiming that all households should know certain elementary things such as how to bake bread and brew beer.

Last modified: 2021-11-08