Every day when I arrive or depart from the brewery, I check out the hops that grow up on the front porch each summer. They sprout from the ground and day-by-day, wind up on to the deck and over the railing. They bud out and begin to flower in the hot summer sun. Today, they are starting to mature. The cones are elongating, the bracts have turned a pale green and the lupulin glands are a daffodil yellow. The delicious aroma is beginning to waft through the air.
Hops are a small genus of flowering plants native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The female flowers (often called “cones”) of Humulus lupulus are known as hops, and are used as a flavoring and stabilizer in the brewing of beer, but also in culinary instances, mainly due to the medicinal properties of the plant. 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 hop is one of the two members of the family Cannabaceae, which also includes the genus Cannabis (hemp).
The first recorded reference to hops was by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia. The first documented instance of hop cultivation was in 736 (yes, the year 736 A.D.), in the Hallertau region of present-day Germany, although the first mention of the use of hops in brewing in that country was 1079. Hops quickly replaced a wide variety of other spices and herbs that were being used in brewing. Today, and for hundreds of years now, virtually every beer made on Earth is brewed with hops. Beer without hops is like pizza without the cheese. It’s like the Doors without Morrison or like Harold Melvin without the Blue Notes.
Hops are native to many parts of the northern hemisphere on each of the continents. Separate cultures that have never even crossed paths or spoken the same language have somehow independently come to the conclusion that hops are the sole plant to be used to “spice” beer. Nobody anywhere is arguing this essential truism. The Germans even made it a law. The question that I often ponder is “why hops?” I mean, why did hops become the plant used to brew beer? Why not sage or basil or lemongrass? It’s true that hops have a preservative or antiseptic quality, but so do a wide array of other common plants like cloves and ginger.
What is it about this plant that has drawn in so many cultures over so many centuries? I mean the other basic ingredient in beer (besides water) is often barley. Such is the case here at the PSB. But, any and every grain known to man has without a doubt been used to brew beer. Corn, rice, wheat and rye are just a few that are very commonly used in beer production today and throughout history. To each their own, if it makes good beer then brew with it is the attitude towards grain. Yet beer must have hops.
I think the intrinsic value of hops can’t be measured by any tool of modern man. Hops’ closest relative, cannabis sativa, has also been used throughout history for medicinal and spiritual purposes. This is a major clue. It’s certainly no small coincidence. Do hops possess spiritual healing powers?
Perhaps we can discover the spiritual powers of hops by looking at its only true relative on this planet: cannabis.
Let’s take a look at the word cannabis. Ever wonder what it means? Cannabis is a Greek word, though its root is African. In Greek, canna means ‘canine’ or ‘dog’ and bis or bi is the number two. So cannabis is the two dog plant! That in itself is interesting. But there’s more….much more.
There is a tribe in Mali, West Africa called the Dogon tribe. A fairly well-documented group, the Dogons were first documented by Herodotus, a Greek travel writer, around 300 BC. He was fortunate enough to have visited the Dogons during a year-long celebration that took place every 50 years. When he asked these people why they were celebrating, the Dogons pointed to the brightest star in the winter sky, Sirius, and said it was the ‘Two-Dog Star’ and explained that it was the home of the ‘two-dog plant’, cannabis. The two-dog plant, they said, was brought to our planet from the Goddess from the Two Dog Star. Their year-long celebration was in honor of the Two-dog Star.
All of this would be easy to dismiss as if not for the fact the Dogons possessed specific knowledge about the Sirian system for thousands of years before scientists with modern telescopes and equipment could catch up and prove them right. The Dogons had specific knowledge about Sirius B, a white dwarf star, which they call Po Tolo. They knew that it was white, that it was extremely small, and that its the heaviest star in its grouping. They were able to describe its elliptical orbit with Sirius A, its 50 year orbital period, and the fact that the star rotated on its own axis. Sirius B is invisible to the naked eye and is so difficult to observe, even through a telescope, that no pictures were taken of it until 1970.
They also described a third star in the Sirius system, which they called Emme Ya. In 1995, when two French astronomers published the results of a multi-year study that was apparently a small, red dwarf star within the Sirius star system, the Dogon idea of there being a Sirius C, aka Emme Ya, was suddenly taken much more seriously. If the Dogons were correct in all of their other knowledge about Sirius, why would they not be dead on with their claims of cannabis being from Sirius. It is, after all, named after that “Two-Dog Star’
The Dog Star was revered in ancient Mesopotamia, where its old Akkadian name was Mil-lik-ud (Dog Star of the Sun) and in ancient Babylonia, where it was called Kakkab-lik-ku (Star of the Dog). The Assyrians called Sirius Kal-bu-sa mas (the Dog of the Sun) and in Chaldea, it was known as Kak-shisha (The Dog Star That Leads)
So what does this all have to do with hops? Well, as I mentioned, hops are not only related to cannabis, but the two sister plants have no other relatives on the planet. Some say the Hackberry is related to hops, but that is a stretch since it is a tree. Most families of plants on Earth have many, even hundreds of siblings in the family. That is very curious. Perhaps the Dogons folks are right. Perhaps hops are a direct descendant of a plant brought to us from another planet. How can you argue with people that have a year-long party?
I think it’s time to ponder this over another Pale Ale.