History is brewing in a hop along the trail

History is brewing in a hop along the trail
John C. Lorson

Cones of common hops arc from their bine (a stout, helical stem different from a vine) along the Holmes County Trail. Known mostly as a flavorful addition to the beer-making process, hops have been used medicinally for thousands of years across the Northern Hemisphere.


I spotted some Orrville friends the other evening as I was pedaling past the park in Fredericksburg, which serves as the northern trailhead of the Holmes County Rail Trail. Swinging into the parking lot, I asked whether they were headed out or rolling in.

“We’re headed to Millersburg for dinner and a visit to the brewery,” they said.

A 10-mile ride in each direction, I reminded them sunset at this time of year comes an awful lot sooner than during high summer when the daylight lasts until just after 9 p.m. and twilight lingers for well over an hour beyond that.

“Sundown comes at around eight, and it gets dark quickly out there on the trail,” I said.

“Don’t worry. We’ve got great headlights,” they assured me.

I had a thought to remind them to wear glasses, but I didn’t want to bust their party vibe. They’d learn soon enough how wonderfully attractive those blazing headlights can be to the moths, mosquitoes and other night flyers. I’ve extracted many-a-bug from under my helmet over the years until finally wising up and wearing a nylon cap over my hair (or what’s left of it) to keep the bugs at bay.

Had I thought the group would have any daylight to spare, I would have pointed out they’d be riding past a whole mess of key ingredients in the beer-making process — the fruits of which they were set to enjoy.

The common hop is native to this latitude pretty much around the globe (North America, Asia and Europe), and the cone-shaped fruit of the plant has been used for millennia in various medicinal preparations. “Hops” saw their first use as an ingredient in the brewing process around 1,200 years ago, offering a touch of bitterness to balance the overly sweet flavor of the malts used to produce alcohol. As it turned out, this addition also helped preserve the brew because of hops’ natural antimicrobial properties.

I first noticed the odd-looking cones growing in small clusters along the trail a few years ago. Having no clue what they were, I did a little research and learned hops seem to have a widespread presence along rail corridors throughout the northern half of the nation.

Some have attributed this to the fact that in the 1800s as the nation grew (and with it, the population’s thirst for beer), much of the expansion took place along rail corridors. Because refrigeration was a difficult prospect during those times, beer, which degrades quickly in the heat, couldn’t be transported as easily as its spirituous cousins: wine, bourbon and whisky.

Thus, the “entrepreneurial spirit” delivered a brewery in darn near every city, town and village in the land — at least 4,000 of them before prohibition began in 1920. And while beer itself wasn’t well-suited for travel, its ingredients arrived by rail, and so the legend goes that train cars full of hops would make the rounds of the line, inadvertently dropping enough commodity along the way to seed the corridors of a continent.

I really have no way of knowing whether this theory has any truth behind it, but I can say that on any given September day, you can likely find hops growing along a rail trail near you. You may not find them in the quantity needed for even a small batch of homebrew, and even if you did, you might find this now-wild variety of hops may be a far and bitter cry from the carefully cultivated varieties of today.

Don’t despair in thinking the treasure you’ve found on the trail has nothing beyond aesthetic value. You can always harvest a sack full to use one of the earliest medicinal applications of hops: inducing calm and easing sleep. A “hops pillow” — which is really more of a sachet than something you’d lay your head upon — can be made by simply stuffing fresh hops into a little muslin bag. A couple of whiffs at bedtime and off you go to la-la land.

And unlike the “train car distribution theory,” there is scientific research to back up the soporific (sleep inducing) effect of hops. Had my friends on the trail known all of this, they could’ve simply ridden a few miles, sniffed a handful of hops and called it a night.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com.

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