Herbs in History: Hops
Humulus lupulus L.
By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | September 2023
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Illustration 1: Hops
Illustration 2: Female flowers
Illustration 3: Copper tanks in a brewery
Hops (Humulus lupulus L., Cannabaceae) (Illustration 1), with its flowers in cone-like catkins (Illustration 2) that give its bitter flavor to beer, almost automatically evokes the large copper tanks of breweries (Illustration 3), the great variety of beers, from both the U.S.A. (Illustration 4) and Europe, the National Football League and its final, and also a friendliness that might be characteristic of beer (Illustration 5). Is it only this? Or is there more? Now and in the past?
Hops in Antiquity?
A perennial climber with a growing average of 20 feet, hops is native to the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, in fact North-Central Europe, with a distribution spanning the English Channel to the Caspian Sea from West to East and the Balkans to St. Petersburg from South to North. Being a climbing shrub, it is now grown on appropriate structures characteristic of the agricultural environment of Northen Europe (Illustration 6).
It is no surprise that it does not seem to appear in the classical literature on medicinal plants of Antiquity, mostly Mediterranean in nature. Nevertheless, a team of botanists and historians thought to have identified it in an ancient Greek manuscript produced in Constantinople and dating back to the 6th century (Illustration 7). However anecdotic it might seem, this identification has the potential to substantially transform the history of beer. We know, indeed, that some form of beer was brewed from the infusion of germinated grain and subsequent fermentation as early as the fourth millennium BCE in Mesopotamia and Egypt. We do not know, however, that hops was used. In addition to adding its specific flavor, hops contains, acids that have antibacterial properties, which prevent beer spoilage. The presence and knowledge of hops as early as the 6th century, thus, had the potential to generate a technological revolution in brewery and, more generally, in ancient alimentation.
Illustration 4: Andy Crouch, Great American Craft Beer. A Guide to the Nation’s Finest Beers and Breweries. Philadelphia, PA, and London: Running Press, 2010
The piece of evidence used by the research team who claimed to have identified hops in a manuscript is an illustration in a hand-made copy of the Greek text of De materia medica by Dioscorides (1st cent. CE), the major reference on medicinal plants and other natural substances used in Antiquity for the preparation of medicines. The illustration appears in the manuscript now preserved in Vienna, National Library of Austria, with shelfmark medicus graecus 1. Though traditionally dated to 512 CE, it might be anterior to that exact year, and it was most probably made in the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople. This illustration has been transmitted with great accuracy through the centuries in Byzantium and can be found, for example, in a 10th-century copy of the manuscript now in Vienna, also made in Constantinople (Illustration 8).
As per the analysis made by the team, the illustration is related to the chapter on Bryony in Dioscorides’ text (Bryonia alba L., Cucurbitaceae, and such other species as B. cretica L. or B. dioica Jacq. the latter of which is now considered a synonym of B. alba). It does not represent a species of Bryonia, according to traditional interpretation, but rather Humulus lupulus L. with its “opposite and serrate leaves [that] do not fit Cucurbitaceae. Instead, the plant’s habit and leaves fit the common hop ... in all aspects”. A close examination shows indeed a strong similarity with Humulus lupulus L. (Illustrations 9a and 9b). The botanical description—in fact a characterization more than a full description—does not exactly correspond (Dioscorides, De materia medica IV.183):
Illustration 5: Beer attractiveness
The black bryony, which some call idiomatically bryonia and others Cheironios ampelos. Its leaves are like those of the ivy tending more toward those of bindweed, as are its stems, but these are larger. It, too, attaches itself to trees by means of its tendrils. The fruit is in clusters, at first pale-green but after ripening it becomes black. The root is outwardly black but inside it has the color of boxwood.
The next information recalls, instead, the use of hops sprigs, which are still harvested in the Spring and eaten as delicacy nowadays in the countryside:
Its stems, too, when first sprouting, are used as vegetables ...
Pursuing, the therapeutic properties of Bryony might well fit some of hops:
Its stems ... are diuretic, provoke menstruation, reduce the spleen, and are appropriate for patients epileptic, paralytic, and suffering from dizziness ...
Illustration 6: Hops cultivation
Assuming that this chapter in Dioscorides, De materia medica and the illustration under analysis might have referred to hops, we do not have solid evidence, archaeological in nature, showing that hops was grown and consumed in Antiquity. There might be, nevertheless, a mention in the Naturalis Historia (Natural History) by Dioscorides’ contemporary, Pliny (23/24-79 CE), as we shall see later, when examining Renaissance literature. Even if we consider that this passage does refer to hops, it does not provide any information on its use in beer making, alimentation or medicine.
Illustration 7: Renner S. et al., Dioscorides’s buronia melaina is Bryonia alba, not Tamus communis, and an illustration labeled bruonia melaina in the Codex Vindobnonensis is Humulus lupulus not Bryonia dioica, poster, 2008.
Medieval Beer and Medicine
Moving across the centuries and to the West in Central-North Europe and the Middle Ages, we meet the Celtic and Germanic populations, hops, brewing, and the use of beer in medicine. Hops cultivation was diffused in the German World and, from the late 12th century on, it was under the patronage of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who was the protector of hop-growers.
In the Carolingian Worlds, brewers used hops and knew its effect on the preservation of beer. Nevertheless, they might have used hops in reduced quantity due to the difficulty in identifying the right dosage of it to be added. They also added other herbs to beer to increase the palette of flavours, as for example such rare spice as cumin. Whatever way it was produced—with or without hops—beer was produced and consumed in the households on a daily basis, as it also was in monasteries.
In medicine, more specifically, hops appears in the literature as early as the end of the 10th century—which, by the way, is the century of the manuscript of New York with the representation of Bryony that might be hops—in the manual of pharmaco-therapy traditionally identified in modern scholarly literature as the Old English Herbal. There, beer is frequently used for both the preparation and the administration of remedies as in the following formulae, for example (exactly reproducing the wording, tone, and style of the recent translation):
1.18 If a person is feeling poorly inside or is nauseous, then take two tremiss-weights of this same plant betony and one ounce of honey; then boil them very thoroughly in beer; let him drink three cupfuls after fasting for a night. Then his insides will be freed of discomfort.
90.11 If ... the person is afflicted by heartburn or by some purulent inflammation, then take the roots of this plant [yarrow] and pound them very well. Then put them in some very good beer; give him this to drink, lukewarm. I believe that this will truly benefit him, both for heartburn and for any internal discomforts.
Illustration 8: Manuscript New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M652, f. 22 verso, bruōnia melaina (10th century, Constantinople)
In some cases, administration with beer was to be avoided:
1.28 If the person is feverish and suffering from a high temperature, then give him this plant [betony] in warm water, by no means in beer. The pain in the loins and the thights will get better very quickly.
Hops in itself appears in the Lacnunga of the same period, for example, in the composition of the “Green salve”, the applications of which are not specified (15), and in the making of another salve (31.2) “that works for headache and for infirmity in any limb” made of several herbs.
From Practice to Knowledge
In the early Renaissance, hops is present in the very first printed herbals as Luppulus, with a simple, yet clear woodcut. As its name indicates, it was linked with wolves (lupus in Latin) and the whole world of wild nature.
The German Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) opened a new era in hops knowledge in his Historia stirpium (Research on Medicinal Plants) first published in Latin in 1542. Interestingly, he equated hops and a plant that he called Bryon on the basis of the name of Bryony (bruōnia in ancient Greek) in a way that recalls the research referred to above, which identified the ancient representation of bruōnia as being hops. And he provided the different names used in his time to identify it: Lupus salictarius (Lupulus of the Willow tree) in Latin, Lupulus in the pharmacies, and, commonly, Humulus. Though not providing explicit information, these names hint at a common usage, particularly the reference to pharmacies.
Particularly interesting here for historical purposes is the Latin name (Lupus salictarius), which is exactly the one mentioned in Pliny, Naturalis Historia. Fuchs glosses it, saying that it comes from the fact that hops climbs on Willow trees, and surrounds and embraces the whole tree. Knowing the current agricultural technique consisting in building wire structures on which twigs twine (Illustration 6), Fuchs’ explanation suggests that, during the Renaissance at least, hops was grown on the typical flowing branches of Willow, which offered a natural support to the twigs. And, going back in time up to Pliny, who already did use the expression lupus alictarius, we can hypothesize that Willow trees were already used in his time to grow hops. In that case, we would have here a pretty clear reference to Hops in Antiquity!
Illustration 10: Leonhart Fuchs, Historia Stirpium. Basel : Isengrin, 1542, p. 542
Illustration 11: Pietri Andreae Matthioli, Commentarii in sex libros Pedacii Dioscorides Anazarbei de Medica materia, iam denuo ab ipso autore recognit, et locis plus mille aucti ... Venice : Valgrisi, 1565, p. 213
Illustration 12: Remberti Dodonaei, Stirpium historiae Pemptades sex, sive libri XXX. Anvers: Christophe Plantin, 1583, p. 404
Returning to Fuchs he provided the following description of the flowers of hops, in which we can recognize cone-like catkins (Illustration 5):
... Leaves as [those] of white vine, rough ... flowers ... made of numerous small pods, in the way of scales, compact ... It flowers in August and September ...
To that he added a full-page illustration that represents well these characteristics of the flower (Illustration 10).
On the properties and uses of hops, he wrote what follows:
... the heavy scent and strong bitterness indicate that the flowers, which are most used, are hot and dry ...
Both (the root and the flower) eliminate bile, dissolve abscesses, and evacuate subcutaneous pus in water through the stomach. Its juice, drunk raw, evacuate the belly, but not very much possible obstructions. Boiled, however, it liberates more from obstructions, but evacuates less the belly. Instilled in the ears, it cures putrid inflammations. It also eliminates fetuses. The roots eliminate obstructions, particularly of the gale bladder and liver.
The Italian physician Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577) followed suit as soon as 1544, in his first Italian translation of Dioscorides, De materia medica. Interestingly, he regretted that physicians did not prescribe hops much whereas “it is so good a medicine”. In the versions of this translation and commentary produced from 1565 on, he added a large illustration that recalls that of Fuchs (Illustration 10) and captures well the botanical characteristics of hops, without leaving any doubt about the correct identification of the plant (Illustration 11).
Although Mattioli gradually improved his description of hops and expanded the list of its uses from one of his multiple editions and re-editions of his work to the next, only the Belgian Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585) provided a full study of the plant (Illustration 12).
In the typical way of the Renaissance, Dodoens includes a paragraph on the names of hops. There, we find those already mentioned by Fuchs and Mattioli. And, about Fuchs, Dodens wondered how he could have called hops Bruon, Bryony (from bruōnia in ancient Greek), because bruon in ancient, classical Greek refers to moss, which is correct. Although Dodens is correct in stressing the point, Fuchs specified that Bruon was the version of the classical name of Bryony (bruōnia) used in his time.
Dodoens’ characterization of the climbing of hops on poles is almost poetical: it goes up by spiraling around poles and any crunch he can find, in an embrace like a vine. It grows long twigs, rugose and hirsute; its leaves also are rugose, large, and similar to those of Bryony ... Its flowers are small compact cones, scale-like, yellowish. Flowers are harvested in August and September and kept aside for beer.
Regarding the properties of hops, Dodoens followed Fuchs and identified those of the flowers as hot and dry, adding, however, that they are so at the second degree on the scale of four degrees of intensity created in Antiquity by Galen (129-after [?] 216 CE). And he immediately specified that “they easily fill the head, hurting by their strong scent. The leaves have the same properties and are also aperitive and cleaning” (p. 404).
He then details the action of each of the parts of hops, starting with the young twigs, which were—and still are nowadays—eaten as asparagi. Being young offshoots, they are less noxious than the grown plant, and they clean the body through urine, in addition to purifying blood. Boiled in milk serum, they are useful against fever and skin infections.
The juice from the leaves is stronger and liberates “in a not light way” the gastro-intestinal system from obstructions. And he mentions—apparently not considering this to be solid evidence—that they are used to eliminate bile and pus through the digestive system. Similarly, he refers to reports—again without trusting them too much, it seems—that instillation in the ears cleans them.
The flowers are used to flavour beer and make it too bitter if they are used in great quantity, in addition to go to the head.
Dodoens concludes the chapter with a bread made of hops flowers. As he puts it, “The flowers make the bread lighter and less dense and make the fermentation of the paste easier and quicker if the water in which hops flower have boiled is mixed with the flour.”
In the 20th century, the German physician Ernst Meyer in Pflanzliche Therapie. Eine Anleitung mit Beispielen zur Rezeptur Pflanzliche Therapie (Therapie through Plants. An Introduction to Formulae for Plant Therapy with Examples) first published in Leipzig in 1935, considered hops as “extraordinarily efficacious” medicine to treat sleep disorder, as it is a good sedative and a light hypnotic. For sexual problems resulting from nervous troubles, he recommended hops powder dissolved in alcohol.
Three years later, the German physician Gerhard Madaus (1890-1942) published his monumental Lehrbuch der biologischen Heilmittel (Textbook of the Biological Healing Methods) in which he collected an unparalleled sum of information. Just like Meyer, he considered that Lupulinum efficaciously treats sleep disorders and is an antaphrodisiac to be used against genital neuralgy and neurasthenia. He went further and added other indications resulting from the sedative action of hops: severe pain, gout, rheumatism. And also, as a stomachic, it helps in disorders of the digestive system of nervous origin such as gastritis, gastric spasm, dyspepsia, and anorexia. Similarly, it acts on the pathologies of the urinary tract such as cystitis, prostatitis, anuria, and incontinence.
More to come? Apart from beer!
On Lupulus in the Vienna manuscript
Renner S.S., J. Scarborough, H. Schaefer, H.S. Paris, J. Janick. Dioscorides’s bruonia melaina is Bryonia alba, not Tamus communis, and an illustration labeled bruonia melaina in the Codex Vindobonensis is Humulus lupulus not Bryonia dioica. Cucurbitaceae 2008 (= Pitrat M. [ed.], Proceedings of the IXth EUCARPIA meeting on genetics and breeding of Cucurbitaceae, INRA, Avignon [France], May 21-24th, 2008), pp. 273-280.
From the European Medicines Agency
A summary of the scientific conclusions reached by the Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC) on the medicinal uses of Hop strobile (the common name for Hops’ flower), 2016: https://www.ema.europa.eu/en/medicines/herbal/lupuli-flos
Hop strobile, summary for the public, 20 September 2016
Scientific articles (chronological order of publication)
Marceddu R., A. Carrubba, M. Sarno 2023. Cultivation trials of hop (Humulus lupulus L.) in a Mediterranean environment. Acta Horticulturae 1366 (2023), pp. 147-154.
The role of hops on stress, anxiety and depression, January 2023. https://farmaimpresa.com/en/the-role-of-hops-on-stress-anxiety-and-depression/#:~:text=In%20conclusion%2C%20in%20otherwise%20healthy,a%20period%20of%204%20weeks.
González-Salitre, L., L. Guillermo González-Olivares, U.A. Basilio-Cortes 2023. Humulus lupulus L. a potential precursor to human health: High hops craft beer. Food chemistry 405 (Pt B) (2023): 134959.
Carbone, K., F. Gervasi 2022. An Updated Review of the Genus Humulus: A Valuable Source of Bioactive Compounds for Health and Disease Prevention. Plants 11(24) (2022): 3434. https://doi.org/10.3390/plants11243434
Lagos, F. S., K.C. Zuffellato-Ribas, C. Deschamps 2022. Vegetative propagation of hops (Humulus lupulus L.): Historical approach and perspectives. Semina: Ciências Agrárias 43(3) (2022), pp. 1373–1394.
Ramírez A., J.M. Viveros 2021. Brewing with Cannabis sativa vs. Humulus lupulus: a review. Journal of Institute of Brewing 127(3) (2021), pp. 201-209.
Korpelainen, H., M. Pietiläinen 2021. Hop (Humulus lupulus L.): Traditional and Present Use, and Future Potential. Economic Botany 75 (2021), pp. 302–322.
Michel, M. et al. 2020. The impact of different hop compounds on the growth of selected beer spoilage bacteria in beer. Journal of Institute of Brewing 11 September 2020. https://doi.org/10.1002/jib.624
Dietz, Ch. et al. 2020. The multisensory perception of hop essential oil: a revie. Journal of the Institute of Brewing 126 (2020), pp. 320– 342.
Ovcirk, M., M. Necemer, J. Kosir 2019. The determination of the geographic origins of hops (Humulus lupulus L.) by multi–elemental fingerprinting. Food Chemistry, 277 (2019), pp. 32–37.
Rodolfi, M., A. Silvanini, B. Chiancone, M. Marieschi, A. Fabbri, R. Bruni, T. Ganino 2018. Identification and genetic structure of wild Italian Humulus lupulus L. and comparison with European and American hop cultivars using nuclear microsatellite markers. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 54 (2018), pp. 1405–1422.
Kyrou, I., A. Christou, A. Panagiotakos, C. Stefanaki, K. Skenderi, K. Katsana, C. Tsigos 2017. Effects of a hops (Humulus lupulus L.) dry extract supplement on self-reported depression, anxiety and stress levels in apparently healthy young adults: a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover pilot study. Hormones (Athens, Greece), 16(2) (2017), pp. 171–180. https://doi.org/10.14310/horm.2002.1738
Aydin, T., N. Bayrak, E. Baran, A. Cakir 2017. Insecticidal effects of extracts of Humulus lupulus (hops) L. cones and its principal component, xanthohumol. Bulletin of Entomological Research 107 (2017), pp. 543–549.
Simran S. 2016. Wacky, Wonderful, Wild Hops Could Transform the Watered-Down Beer Industry. The diversity of hops reflects a diversity of tastes and traditions that are part of an extraordinary evolution in beer. Smithsonian Magazine 2016.
Almaguer C., C. Schönberger, M. Gastl, E.K. Arendt, T. Becker 2014. Humulus lupulus – a story that begs to be told. A review. Journal of the Institute of Brewing 120(4) (2014), pp. 289-314.
Koetter U., M. Biendl 2010. Hops (Humulus lupulus): A Review of its Historic and Medicinal Uses. HerbalGram 87 (Fall 2010), pp. 44-57. https://www.herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/87/table-of-contents/article3559/
Zanoli P., M. Zavatti 2008. Pharmacognostic and pharmacological profile of Humulus lupulus L. Review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 116 (2008), pp. 383-396. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378874108000391?via%3Dihub
Behre, K.-E. 1999. The history of beer additives in Europe—A review. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 8 (1999), pp.35-48.
Wilson, D. G. Plant remains from the Graveney boat and the early history of Humulus lupulus L. in W. Europe. New Phytologist 75(3) (1975), pp. 627-648.
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