Humulus lupulus is a 6-8 meters long perennial climbing vine. In cultivation, the vines can reach up to 12 meters in length. Only the female plants produce flowers that become fruit cones. The plants usually flower between July and August and the fruit cones ripen between September and October (Ratsch 1998, 269).
It seems that the hops plant originated in northern Eurasia. It has since been spread throughout the world by beer enthusiasts. It has been growing in central Europe from as early as the 8th century, and is now found in all of the world’s temperate zones in cultivation. In central Europe, wild hops can be found growing wild in lowland forests, fens, hedges, and beside walking paths (Ratsch 1998, 269).
In cultivation, female plants are propagated through clones and cuttings (Gross 1900). Seeds can be difficult to obtain, and so plants are usually cultivated from rootstock division. Hops plants enjoy well-drained, humus-rich soil with lots of sun and little wind. They require climbing supports to thrive. The flowers are best when harvested from summer to mid-autumn and dried quickly. They will quickly lose potency with exposure to oxygen once harvested (Voogelbreinder 2009, 193).
The hops plant is the closest relative of hemp (Cannabis sp.), and the stems of the hops plant are similarly a source of fiber, though not as durable. Nevertheless, the fiber may be used to create linen (DeLyser & Kasper 1994). Indeed, Cannabis and hops are the only plants in the Cannabaceae family, and can be cross-grafted very well, but there is no translocation of cannabinoids to the hops vine when this is done (Voogelbreinder 2009, 192).
TRADITIONAL USES: Many people only associate the hops plant with beer and do not consider it an entheogen. However, it does create altered states, both on its own and brewed in to alcoholic beverages, and for some people it can be a very powerful healer. The purpose of this article is to provide a comprehensive picture of hops so that you can decide for yourself what constitutes an entheogen or plant medicine.
The first written record of hops seems to come from the Roman naturalist Pliny. Hildegard von Bingen was the first to precisely describe the plant’s psychoactive effects and excellent properties as a preservative for beer. Although hops flowers are not known to have been used ritually in any context, they are sometimes used as an incense or in incense blends. The energy of the plant is associated with the planet Mars and the water element. The plant also produces a yellow coloring agent that may be used in dyeing (Ratsch 1998, 270).
Hops were once taken by Christian monks to suppress the sex drive. They drank large quantities of beer in order to resist the temptation of the natural sex drive, which they attributed to the devil. Around the end of the middle ages, these monks began to brew hops in to their beer, as the soporific effects of the plant assisted them in remaining chaste. Thanks to these sexually suppressed monks, hops are now the most common additive to beer (Ratsch 1998, 270).
Outside of monasteries, the use of hops as a beer additive did not become widespread until the sixteenth century with the passing of the Bavarian Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot), which restricted the ingredients of beer to water, barley, and hops and absolutely nothing else (DeLyser & Kasper 1994). Indeed, before this time, the British had resisted the use of hops in beer, believing it to be a ‘wicked weed’ and preferring to use certain species of ivy and other herbs to brew beer. However, hopped beer was thought to be better for the body than English beer, and the plant was also thought to reduce excessive anger. It is thought that the Bavarian Purity Law was passed once it was realized that hops were much less intoxicating than many other popular herbal additives (Voogelbreinder 2009, 192). One of our contributors, Dr. Brisgen, has suggested that the Bavarian Purity Law marks the beginning of a systematic banning of psychoactive medicines such as Panaeolus subbalteatus (a psilocybin-containing mushroom), which were often added to beer before the law was put in place. The Bavarian Purity Law was even a subject of debate as late as the 1990’s during the reunification of East and West Germany.
A great example of the way in which the hops plant has influenced the development of beer is the story of the invention of the IPA, or Indian Pale Ale. In the 18th and 19th century the British began sending many soldiers over to India and other parts of the world in order to colonize and usurp resources and power from indigenous peoples. However, they encountered many difficulties, including one big one – British soldiers loved to drink ales, but ales didn’t keep well on long sea voyages, especially in hot climates. This meant that soldiers aboard ships for months would not only be dangerously sober, they would be lacking the essential vitamin B that they usually received from drinking beer (Tomlinson 2012).
Desperate for a way to transport beer all the way to India, the British tried to find a solution. It wasn’t even possible to brew a proper English beer in India due to the climate, and the soldiers were having to settle for rum, which had a serious impact on health and general temperament (Tomlinson 2012).
Finally, George Hodgson, a brewer from East London, created a new version of his popular Pale Ale. He understood that two things prevented beer from spoiling – alcohol and hops. Therefore, he increased the hops content of his original recipe dramatically and also added more grain and sugar, increasing the alcohol content. The result was a very bitter, highly alcoholic and very sparkly pale ale that could easily endure the difficulties of travel and the Indian climate. When soldiers returned from India, they had a taste for this very hoppy beer and demanded it at home. Thus it was that Indian Pale Ales became one of the most popular styles of beer. In fact, as can be seen below, IPAs are one of the most popular styles of beer in the booming craft brewing industry that is taking over the American beer market, and many clever labels can be found, including quite a few that humorously point out the relationship between hops and cannabis (Tomlinson 2012)!
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The female hops flowers contain psychoactive materials that are desirable in the preparation of beer and other beverages. The active constituents break down continuously with oxidation, so flowers that are more than one year old should not be used (Voogelbreinder 2009, 192).
A relaxing hops tea can be made with two teaspoons of hops flowers and about a cup of boiling water. Valeriana officinalis (valerian) may be added to increase the relaxing effects of the tea (Ratsch 1998, 270). Hops flowers may also be smoked for a mild psychoactive effect similar to that of the tea, but the smoke is harsh and can cause headaches in some people. The young shoots of the hops plant may be eaten in a way similar to asparagus spears, and were once commonly found in many markets in Europe (Voogelbreinder 2009, 192).
Hops are used in the brewing of almost all varieties of beer. In particular, many breweries produce heavily hopped beers such as pilsners and Indian Pale Ales, which have a very bitter taste and are quite soporific in nature. These types of beer have become very popular with the rise of craft beer brewing in the United States and other countries (Tomlinson 2012).
MEDICINAL USE: The Omaha tribe of North America have Buffalo Doctors (te’ithaethe), individuals to whom the buffalo has come in a dream. These healers are skilled in treating wounds, and wild hops were a most essential medicine to them, along with the root of the nightshade Physalis heterophylla and American sweet cicely, (Osmorhiza longistylis). The healer chews these ingredients with some water and spits them on to open wounds for rapid healing (Kindscher 1992).
Hops and extracts of hops are used as sedatives in folk and ‘modern’ medicine. Hops flowers are excellent in the treatment of anxiety, unrest, and insomnia. Pillows filled with dried hops are used to create calm and to assist with insomnia. These pillows have been used since the 18th century, and are so potent that they are said to be effective when ‘opium had already failed’ (DeLyser & Kasper 1994). A homeopathic preparation of H. lupulus may be used as a sedative.
Hops are soothing to the digestive system and also act as an antispasmodic, diuretic, and oestrogenic, causing aphrodisiac effects in men and women. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the plant is used to treat tuberculosis and as an anticonvulsant (Voogelbreinder 2009, 192).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Hops flowers contain 15-30% resin, as well as bitter acids, an essential oil, minerals, flavonoids, chalcones, polypenoles, and catechines. The flowers contain yellow hops granules, which include the bitter lupulone. This substance has antibiotic properties and creates the characteristic bitter taste of hopped beer. It has a calming effect on humans, and also inhibits premature ejaculation. Furthermore, it has antimycotic, spasmolytic, and estrogenic effects (Williams & Menary 1988).
Some of the narcotic properties of the plant may be due to the quercetin in the plant, also found in Psidium guajava and other plants. Fresh hops cones can cause allergic skin reactions when touched, and people harvesting them may experience a dermatitis known as hops plucker’s disease or hops eye, a form of conjunctivitis (Ratsch 1998, 270-271).
Hops is a sedative and mild hypnotic that produces very calming effects, especially in combination with valerian root. Hops are wonderful for treating insomnia and withdrawal from diazepam and other benzodiazepene addictions (Voogelbreinder 2009, 192).
Due to the estrogenic effects of hops, excessive beer drinking can lead to feminization of the male body which manifests with physical changes such as what are called ‘beer breasts’. The effects of hops are not altered by alcohol content. Excessive consumption of hops can cause dizziness, stupor, and mild jaundice in some (Voogelbreinder 2009, 192).
Since hops are so closely related to Cannabis sp. plants, some have attempted to find cannabinoids in H. lupulus, or to graft hops vines on to Cannabis root stock to create “stealth weed”. However, no cannabinoids have ever been found in the plant, nor do they seem to transfer effectively in grafting (Voogelbreinder 2009, 192).
Of some interest is the related Humulus japonicus (Japanese hops), which is not useful as a beer additive, but which is thought to have psychoactive properties. Little more is known on the topic at this time, however (Ratsch 1998, 271).
DeLyser, D.Y., and W.J. Kasper. “Hopped Beer: The Case for Cultivation.” Economic Botany 48, no. 2 (1994): 166–170.
Gross, E. Hops: In Their Botanical, Agricultural and Technical Aspect and as an Article of Commerce. London: Scott, Greenwood and Co., 1900.
Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
Kindscher, K. Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1992.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Tomlinson, T. “India Pale Ale, Part I: IPA and Empire – Necessity and Enterprise Give Birth to a Style.” Brewing Techniques, n.d. http://www.brewingtechniques.com/library/styles/2_2style.html.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.
Williams, E.A., and R.C. Menary. “Polyphenolic Inhibitors of Alpha-acid Oxidase Activity.” Phytochemistry 27, no. 1 (n.d.): 35–39.