“They say whoever is scratched by the hops cannot escape them.”
— Alexander Feiner, Hop Farmer — For the Love of Hops by Stan Hieronymus
In these warm summer evenings, as the sun peeks through the clouds and city haze before melting into the horizon, I relish the thought of walking my dog through the neighborhood at a borderline uncomfortably warm temperature even in short shorts and a tank top. It sure beats the hell out of a frigid walk in January despite four thick layers and a brisk pace. The dark winter walks at 6pm with frozen fingers have me cursing puffs of precious hot air from my mouth, ever-longing for the sweaty walks of July and August. And so I walk these balmy evenings, remembering that my fingers not reaching rigor mortis status is a generous gift of the summer months. I walk and glisten with gratitude.
I often find myself on these walks admiring the gardens, plants and trees growing in neighbor’s yards and down back alleys. My dog trots along sniffing bushes and tree trunks while I note fruit trees and herbs. My favorite places to walk are the neighborhood alleys – many of which are seldom used and ripe with interesting un-city-like views. They’re a pretend escape from the city grid, at least for a block or two. Willow trees, chicken coops, and sunflowers line the rickety fences protecting unkept backyards. The occasional dog reminds me my presence is unwelcome, though the same greeting would be received from the front yard on the sidewalk. I keep a mental list of gardening and landscape ideas as I peruse the alleyway like an aisle at IKEA.
My alltime favorite plant to find is hops. Duh. Seeing a towering bine wrapped around a telephone pole or tall fence with little green pinecone-looking hops dangling in clusters amidst the shade of hand-sized leaves sends a smile to my face and tickles my inner homebrewer. I wonder if they were thoughtfully planted, or as wild and forgotten as the knee-high weeds beneath them. Do they often get eyed up for future batches of beer, or am I their sole admirer? The joy I get from checking on them every so often on my evening dog walks is well worth their existence, in my opinion, regardless if they’re destined for the kettle or to dry and crumble by late Autumn.
I am lucky to live between the 35th and 50th parallels on this fine earth, along with most of the northern United States and some southern parts of Canada. Between these parallels lies a belt of ideal climates in which hops thrive. Here in Salt Lake City, UT, they grow wild just as well as domestically, and can be spotted on hiking trails, backyard gardens, and even neighborhood alleys.
Hops are as sexy on the bine as they are in your pale ale. Yes, they grow on a bine as opposed to a vine. Though similar in looks, the main difference is the way each plant supports its weight as it climbs and tangles itself on objects that get them closer to the sun. While vines send out small tendrils and suckers to attach and support themselves, bines simply grow in a helical shape by twisting in circles around a hefty string, signpost, or telephone pole. Tiny, downward facing spines help them grip the object they’re climbing, and give reason for harvesters to wear gloves, lest they receive a hop scratch.
With a scientific name like Humulus lupulus, in addition to their unique looks, it’s easy to understand why hops receive immensely more limelight than malt, yeast, or water. I can’t say I’ve seen myself quite as in awe of the other three beer ingredients if spotted while walking as I am with hops. Fields of malt or large bodies of water can be pretty to look at, and yeast, well, good luck identifying that with the naked eye. To top it all off, the use of hops in beer came about when it was discovered they not only added bitterness when boiled, but also antimicrobial properties. Imagine the delight of brewers when their beer didn’t spoil as quickly pre-refrigeration with the simple addition of hops. The list of reasons supporting their fame is as long as the bine grows tall.
My fascination with hops, particularly the ones growing in an alley a few blocks from my apartment, is one fostered by the brewer, gardener, and treasure hunter in me. I can’t help but pause and stare at the lush tower of green, rubbing a cone between my fingers and holding the yellow resin to my nose. It gets me giddy and puts my mind in a summery place – the aromatics, sights, and sounds permeating me almost long enough to warm my frozen February fingers. Come winter, I’ll walk down the alley and visit the dormant hops as their old bines collect in small mounds like snow on the ground. I’ll stand there and imagine the sultry summer evenings spent with my dog, passing by and noting the beauty of the lofty alley hops, and wiping the sweet sweat from my brow from the next summer’s swelter.