Humulus lupulusHops, bierhopfen (German), vigne du nord (French, “vine of the north”), Gemeiner Hopfen, lupolo.

FAVORITE USE(S): To induce a state of relaxation and calm before sleep, to get to sleep quickly, and to achieve a more restful quality of sleep.

FAVORITE TIME(S): Anytime in the afternoon or evening as a calming herb, but especially an hour or two before bed.

The hops plant is a perennial climbing vine that usually grows 6-8 meters (19-26 feet) tall, and sometimes as much as 12 meters (40 feet). Best known today as the bittering agent in beer, the Roman naturalist Pliny first wrote about hops. The medieval German herbalist Hildegard of Bingen first described its psychoactive and preservative effects in detail. Hops became popular in Germany as an additive to beer after Bavarian purity laws banned many other popular herbal additives like wormwood and ivy, which were noted to be more intoxicating than hops.

Although hops is probably native to northern Eurasia, where it grows wild in lowland fens, forests and hedges, today the modern enthusiasm for beer has propagated hops all over the temperate regions of the world. Hops is the only other species in the family Cannabaceae, which also contains Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. However, while hops can actually be cross-grafted with Cannabis plants, none of the cannabinoids will cross over to the hops plant. Lupulone, the bittering agent and main active alkaloid in hops, is not related to the cannabinoids in Cannabis.

HOW TO PREPARE/RECIPE: You can buy hops flowers from vendors either dried, in capsules, or as a hops resin; alternatively, if you live in a temperate climate with a good amount of sun, you can grow and harvest your own hops plant to get fresh herbage. Hops vines need a climbing scaffold to grow well, and will flourish when they get a lot of sun and warm, dry weather. The plant flowers from August through October, producing light green flower cones that grow underneath the plant’s tri-lobed leaves. If you harvest your own hops flowers, be sure to wash the cones thoroughly to remove insects. Arrange the flowers on a baking tray and dry them at low heat (an oven set to 170 degrees Fahrenheit works well) for 1.5 to 2 hours, or until the cones have turned yellow and are papery to the touch. This process is a bit more time consuming than buying dried hops flowers, but you’ll get a super fresh and more potent herb if you take the time to do it.

The classic way to work with hops is to put some of the dried flowers into a dream pillow or sachet, sometimes with other aromatic sleep herbs such as chamomile, lavender, or passionflower. I’ve found that a dream sachet of hops flowers, either by themselves or combined with other dream herbs, reliably helps me achieve deep sleep faster and also seems to aid in dream recall the next morning.

Steeping hops as a tea or smoking the dried herbage produces much stronger calming and euphoric effects. You can make hops tea using a ratio of approximately 2 teaspoons of hops cones to 1 cup of water. However, hops tea can be bitter and acidic on its own, even with honey added. A way around this is to blend hops with other calming herbal teas with more pleasant flavors: for me, a synergy of hops flowers and chamomile produces a much more palatable tea with very nice relaxing effects. While I have occasionally smoked hops flowers and found the smoke to have a smooth flavor, it can also be a bit heavy, and can reportedly cause headaches in some people.

Smoking hops produces a distinctly altered headspace (I’d characterize it as a feeling of “spaciness” and contentment), as well as muscle relaxation and warming sensations throughout the body. When smoked, hops’ effects peak about 30 minutes after the first inhalation, fading over a couple of hours. I’ve found the effects of hops tea to be in the same range, but with stronger sedating effects and sense of mild hilarity the smoke doesn’t induce as much.

Unlike drinking a beer, hops tea or a hops cigarette doesn’t interfere with my thought processes or degrade the quality of my sleep. In fact, hops makes a very restful base for combinations of sleep and dream herbs such as chamomile, passionflower, Ashwaganda and California poppy. Hops isn’t for everyone, as some people may experience an allergic reaction to handling or consuming hops cones. People who have had allergic reactions to bananas, chestnuts or peanuts in the past are more likely to be allergic to hops. The flowers also contain phytoestrogens that can affect human hormone levels: hops cones should not be given to prepubescent boys, and men should take them in moderation.