On the surface, they are attractive if unremarkable flowers, the strobiles of the humulus lupulis, or hop plant. It's what you cannot immediately see that is most marvelous about them—lupulin, a yellow, resinous powder tucked down in the folds of these thumb-sized cones that proliferate and mature on the rank vines about August 1 on the Front Range of Colorado.
So harvest is immanent and for a brewer, this is a happy time. Hops are relatively expensive to buy—up to $5 per ounce—but they are also ridiculously easy to grow. In fact, a hop plant is a monster, willing and able to climb almost any vertical surface. I've seen them cling to a telephone pole and climb more than 20 feet up. Unrestrained, they will take over any patch of ground and overwhelm anything nearby. I cut mine back at least twice a week during early spring and summer, and stricly confine their roots.
My 12' row of hops is profuse with cones and so later today, I will select the choicest ones, those that are perfectly ripe and heavy with lupulin. I will spread them out on sheets of butcher paper in a cool, dark room and let them dry for 3-4 days before vacuum-sealing and freezing them in 2 oz. packages.
Last year I pulled about 30 oz. of dried hops from my garden, saving myself perhaps $150. This was enough to supply most of my brewing needs for the year. I grow two varieties: Cascade, a mid-alpha (bitterness) American hop, for flavoring my beers, and Tettnanger, a mild German variety similar to the Czech Saaz hop in its spicy quality—my favorite choice for creating a fine hop aroma in my ales and lagers.
Like any produce I grow in my humble patch, the most satisfying thing about this process is not the cost savings. I most enjoy the absolute freshness and quality of the ingredients I generate, which shows up as Epicurean delight on the faces of family and friends who enjoy a meal here at our house. Or in this case, a frosty cold Bock, which is what I have on tap at the moment.
The Bock is a lager, cold fermented over several months, and it comes forth deep amber color, malty and strong—very strong, at more than 6% alcohol. It took me five years of experimentation and effort to coax a true Bock out of my homebrewing equipment but I finally managed it this past March. But why am I telling you this when I could show you?
Consider the soporific effect—the calmness and even drowsiness that occurs when one downs a cold draught of beer. Most people attribute this to the alcohol, and to be sure, the depressant effect of alcohol is well known. But a homebrewed ale or lager, spiced with freshly dried hops, conveys a synergistic calm to the happy consumer, courtesy of the dual effect of alcohol and lupulin.
But again, why tell when you can show?
I suppose you couldn't really taste that but I promise you—delicious and refreshing. And here comes the buzz, mild and warming. Words like "hammock" and "a good book" come to mind. It's going to be a good day. I'll leave the patrolling of the garden to my friend, the cat. He doesn't care for Bock so I'll have to finish the glass myself.