Hops: Good for What 'Ales' You?
There is much more to hops than its place in the beer brewing industry. In alternative medicine, hops are used as a digestive aid and diuretic, as well as a mild sedative and treatment for menstrual cramps.1 Agriculturally, hops, or Humulus lupulus, are grown in most parts of the world but favor those regions with a northern temperate zone.2 H. lupulus is a perennial plant that is a long twining vine with a very strong, flexible stem.2 At the junctures of the leaves and stem, flowers form in bunches, and the maturing flowers give way to the powdery resin that produces the flavor, or bitterness, of hops.2
Although early brew masters understood the flavoring that hops added to ale (later known as beer), the main reason it was used was for its ability to prevent spoilage due to bacteria.3 Early brews contained small amounts of hops based on the local crop and tastes of the consumers. However, at the height of the British Empire, sailors found that casks of beer they brought onboard their ships spoiled on long voyages. The solution was twofold and would forever change the industry. A London brewer reasoned that alcohol and hops were the factors that prevented spoilage in beer. Consequently, he boosted the alcohol content by adding more grain and sugar, and he increased the amount of hops in each batch of beer.3