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Linné on line arrow Linnaeus and Pharmacy arrow Medicinal plants arrow Hops – not only a bitter in beer

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.

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