No, it's not marijuana. It's a close cousin, known as Humulus lupulus, better known as "hops." You know it as a key ingredient in beer, but its fat, resinous flowers are also prized for their flavor and their medicinal properties. We're just starting to unlock the biochemical secrets of hops, and discover why this plant is so magical.
Looming hops shortages spell potential price increases for users both large and small, and people are beginning to panic. We've been using and trading hops for centuries, and not just for brewing beer — but it's only now, that we're in danger of running out, that we're starting to understand the history of hops and its relationship with people.
People have probably been consuming and using parts of the hops plant for millennia. Native to the northern hemisphere, hops were consumed as part of salads in ancient Greece, used to make dyes and fibers throughout Europe, and even cultivated as an ornamental houseplant as recently as the last century. However, hops don't appear to have been reliably used in beer until the 9th century, about 6000 years after people had figured out how to ferment grains into liquid magic.
And beer wasn't just liquid magic for the obvious reasons (e.g., tastes good, feels good). Historically, fermenting beverages killed bacteria and other pathogens present in the water supply and allowed people to hydrate safely. Medieval children would have grown up consuming "small ale", or beer with very low alcohol content. While constantly quaffing beer from childhood probably erased a few brain cells, it also reduced the likelihood of dying from things like cholera. Thus, beer drinking was an integral part of life in many parts of the world, throughout history.
The problem with beer, though, is that without some sort of preservative measures, it spoils fairly quickly. Historically, you had about two weeks to drink through your supply. But in medieval Europe, most households were producing their own brews (gotta keep the kids supplied), many of which incorporated local wildflowers and plants to lend unique flavor to what was otherwise probably a pretty bland drink. One plant that grew in woodlands across Europe, and provided a bitter, resinous flavor and pungent scent to beer, was hops. Brewers also noticed that incorporating hops into a brew also meant that it lasted longer before spoiling…sometimes for years. By the 8th century, monasteries (the brewing centers of the time) across Europe were noting the location of Humlonaria (hops patches) in local forests, and by the 9th century, monastaries were actively growing hops, which had virtually replaced most other aromatic herbs in beer.
Today, hops are used almost exclusively for beer brewing and the popularity of hops-heavy beers has grown tremendously. Germany and the United States lead the world in terms of hops production. In the US, the vast majority of hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, specifically in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. One specific variety of hop, the Cascade Hop (developed by Oregon State University and the USDA), is especially popular with craft brewers and is noted for its citrusy flavor and aroma, and ability to add bitterness to beer. These hops (and other varieties like them), which comprise a small amount of the overall hop harvest of the US, are in such high demand from craft brewers that there is a national shortage, driving up prices of both beer ingredients, and possibly (please god no) beer itself.
So what is it about this plant that makes beer even more magical? Well, like its more infamous cousin, hops produces some pretty cool chemical compounds, in very much the same way pot does. Most people are probably familiar with the compound THC, which is a bitter acid compound produced by the female flowers of the pot plant. Hop flowers produce bitter acids as well, most importantly humulone and lupulone. These acids, when heated during the brewing process, are chemically reconfigured (into cis- and trans-Isohumulone), producing the bitter flavors and strong aromas characteristic of hopped beers.
The longer the hops are boiled, the more acid molecules are isomerized, and the hoppier the beer. These isomerized acids are bacteriostatic, stopping the growth of certain bacteria and thus preserving the beer. Unfortunately, despite being bona fide bacteria crushers, these bitter acids are very sensitive to exposure to light and can undergo a series of not-so-good reactions leading to a skunky-tasting "lightstruck" beer.
Hops, as it turns out, can do way more than just preserve and flavor beer. Laboratory studies on the medical uses of hops-derived compounds have yielded a number of amazing properties. Humulone has been shown to cause cancer cells to undergo a form of programmed cell-suicide called apoptosis. Lupulone stops cancer cells from proliferating further, arresting the spread of disease. Tumor cells regularly cause a proliferation of blood vessel growth as they draw on the blood supply to fuel their uncontrolled growth. When tumor cells are exposed to humulone, this proliferation stops, successfully ending the growth and expansion of the tumor. When fed to rats and mice, hops and hops-derived extracts have been shown to increase the production of detoxifying enzymes, reduce the development of colon cancer and, when applied topically, protect against skin-cancer. In addition to their cancer fighting potential, hops-derived compounds have been shown to reduce inflammation, reduce the progression of osteoporosis, and to be a mild sedative and sleep aid.
Hops is an incredible plant. They make beer taste better and last longer, stop bacteria, fight cancer, reduce inflammation, and make us snoozy. So, how can one add more of this miracle plant to their diet? Luckily, the most widely available form occurs in one of the most pleasurable delivery vehicles: beer. Many of the powerful compounds in hops are also present in beer, and in a wonderful twist of chemistry, the alcohol in beer actually improves their absorption, although studies have shown that blood concentrations never reach therapeutic levels. But there is hope that, through the magic of hops breeding, beer may one day go from delicious/possibly beneficial to a delicious/potent medicine delivery vehicle. Some scientists are suggesting that hops be specifically bred both for brewing, and to boost the compounds that have medicinal value.