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Hops are female flower cluster of hop species, humulus lupulus.  They are used mostly as flavoring and stability agents in beer.  They bring a bitter, tangy flavor for the purposes of bringing balance to the malt or sweet flavor in beer.  They have other uses such as being a beverages or herbal medicine. Hops were cultivated on a mass scale around the 8th or 9th century AD in the Bohemian gardens of the Hallertau district of Bavaria and other areas of Europe.

The first documented use of hops in beer as a bittering agent was during the 11th century. Before that time, brewers used bitter herbs and flowers like dandelion, burdock root, marigold, horehound (otherwise known as ballota or marrubium), ground ivy, and heather as bittering agents.

Hops are used extensively in brewing for their many purported benefits, including balancing the sweetness of the malt with bitterness, contributing a variety of desirable flavors and aromas, and having an preservative effect that favors the activity of brewer’s yeast over less desirable microorganisms. Historically, traditional herb combinations for ales were believed to have been abandoned when ales made with hops were noticed to be less prone to spoilage.

A hop plant is a vigorous, climbing, herbaceous perennial usually trained to grow up strings in a field or on a trellis.  Many different types of hops are grown by farmers around the world, with different types being used for particular styles of beer.

The major commercial use for hops is in beer.  There are a few other applications where hops are used.  They are an ingredient in Julmust, a carbonated beverage similar to soda.  It is popular in Sweden during December.  Hops are also used in Malta, a Latin American soft drink. Hops are also added to some varieties of kvass which is a fermented beverage made from rye bread. They are also used for flavor in some blended teas.

Hops are used in herbal medicine as a treatment for anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia.  A pillow filled with hops is a popular folk remedy for sleeplessness.  The relaxing effect of hops may be due to a specific chemical component, dimethylvinyl carbinol.Hops tend to be unstable when exposed to light or air and lose their potency after a few months’ storage, so be sure they are vacuum packed in a UV protected bag and use them promptly.

Hops are a wonderful and useful thing!