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Hops

Hops

I have a friend who once built himself a ‘lethe house.’  It wasn’t really a house, and it wasn’t really about forgetting, the way the mythical Lethe River in Hades was supposed to bring total forgetfulness to those who drank the waters.  My friend planted a circular garden filled with soporific plants like valerian, poppies, chamomile and lavender that would send one into the mythical arms of Morpheus, the god of dreams.

The garden was rimmed with large poles linked with ropes to provide supports for hop (Humulus lupulus) vines.  As I remember it, the garden was just big enough so that two of the poles could also support a hammock. This lethe house was about napping, not forgetting, except in the sense that all chores and to-do lists would be forgotten.  I don’t know that he actually got to spend too much time in his lethe house, but it is a charming conceit for a garden.

Hops are known for their soporific qualities. To this day people can buy pretty little hop pillows to lure a reluctant sandman. I have hops growing, not in my garden, but at the edges of the garden. At first I was delighted to find that a hop plant had hopped up from my neighbor’s yard, where it was growing up into a tree. It is an itchy and hairy vine which is more properly called a bine.  Vines have tendrils and suckers to help them climb, but bines just have strong  twining stems that enable them to climb. Hop bines can grow as high as a graceful 30 feet or more.

This past weekend my husband and I went out to clear a major part of a viburnam that had been bent and crushed during the historic December 2008 ice storm. The damage was not easily seen because the affected limbs were hidden by rampant grape and hop vines.  Every year we pull out and cut down these vines, but every spring they come back because we cannot find their beginnings.

Many gardeners are familiar with how persistent grape vines can be, but I think my hop vines are even more indestructible. As it happened we hit upon the perfect time to harvest the beautiful hop flowers that look like fancy little bright green lanterns. In the old days hops were not only used  for their sedative properties, but to increase breast milk, as a general tonic, and as a cure for diarrehea. Hops are not native to North America, but by the early 1600s some Native Americans had added hop tea to their healing cures. Young hop shoots can also be eaten in spring as a vegetable like asparagus.

I first learned about hop farming and harvesting in English novels and movies that described poor Londoners of the 19th and early 20th centuries taking off for the countryside when the hop vines were ripe, to camp out and do the harvest. I gathered it was as close as many of those people got to a country vacation where they enjoy the fresh air, green countryside and something of a social holiday with other hop pickers.

The hop bine/vine is vigorous and can grow as much as a foot a day. Hop farmers put up tall hop poles. Each pole had a hoop at the top and bottom connected by ropes. Hops were planted around the bottom hoop so they could twine around the ropes to the top hoop which was arranged so that at harvest the top hoop could be lowered for picking.  Hop pickers did not need to climb high into the air to do their job. They did notice that they got sleepy just picking the vines all day. Between the hop picking and the country air, I guess they slept well every night. Unless they developed dermatitis, which was an occupational hazard.

Since we have a micro-brewery, Berkshire Brewery,  right in our own South Deerfield backyard, I thought I could get some hop and beer information. Gary Bogoff and Chris Lalli now produce nearly 18,000 gallons of beer a week!

I spoke to Jason Hunter, the Assistant Director of Sales who was the brewery’s very first employee.  Hunter explained that there are more than 40 varieties of hops providing different characteristics to make distinctly different beers.  “Each variety has specific flavor and aromatic properties, as well as bittering. The bittering helps to balance the sweetness of the malt,” he said.

Hunter went on to explain that most hop farms are in the Pacific Northwest and that Berkshire Brewery uses tons of several types of hops to make their different beers.  “All our beers except one, use more than one variety, and some use four or five.”

I don’t know whether beer is soporific or not, or just something that will cure what ails you on a hot summer afternoon or evening.

While hops will make you drowsy, a sunflower contest is sure to keep awake with anticipation. Will your sunflower win? Bring your sunflowers, or come and admire the sunflowers, at the Energy Park this afternoon, August 21. Entries are being accepted in a variety of classes between noon and 2 p.m. Then the judging will begin. Clarkdale and Pine Hill Orchards are providing apples for the winners.

You could continue the celebration, whether a prize was won or not by attending the Free Harvest Supper on the Greenfield Common  tomorrow, August 22.. Fabulous local food prepared by our fabulous local chefs. Lively music by fabulous local musicians. Fabulous conversations and a Really, Really Free Market.  For a still more trash-free meal, bring your own eating utensils.

To make a tax-deductible donation to the Free Harvest Supper:
Send checks made out to FREE HARVEST SUPPER 2010 to Dino Schnelle, C/O Center for Self-Reliance Food Pantry, 393 Main Street, Greenfield, MA 01301. For more information about the Center for Self Reliance and the Greenfield Farmers’ Market Coupon project, please call (413) 773-5029. ###

Between the Rows   August 21, 2010

4 comments to Hops

  • Lisa at Greenbow

    No wonder I get so sleepy after drinking beer. Ha.. I slept well last night. I have been using some silk hops to make fall flower arragements at work. They are a pretty pod.

  • Pat

    Lisa – Silk hops will be much more comfortable to work with. They have such a whimsical shape.

  • I was very interested in all the information you provided about hops. Actually, I learned a few different things like, a lethe house. I never heard the word lethe before. Eating hops shoots was new to me also. Nice post.

  • Pat

    Donna – writing a blog is proof that no odd bit of knowledge is ever wasted.

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