Hemp versus Hops: Past, Present, and Future for an Unlikely Pairing

Hemp and hops may seem like an unlikely pairing.

After all, one is a source for textiles and medicines while the other is a key ingredient in beer -- not exactly an intuitive connection. In actuality the two are closely related, not in use per se (although that’s changing) but with regards to origin, genetics, taxonomy classification, and other key characteristics.

Here we take a closer look at the similarities and differences as well as methods for harvesting and processing hemp and hops. We take a close look at the chemicals and compounds that bind these two plants together, taking a few moments to comment on the emerging practical and economic implications of the hemp vs hops relationship.

Hemp and Hops are Both of the Cannabaceae Family

Cannabaceae is a small family of flowering plants which currently includes 170 species grouped in 11 genera, including Cannabis (hemp, marijuana) and Humulus (hops). Modern phylogenetics indicate the relationship between Cannabis and Humulus is considerably stronger than between other genera of the Cannabaceae family.

Major Differences Between Hemp and Hops

Although Cannabis and Humulus are closely related evolutionarily, they are largely unrelated in physical appearance and use. Cannabis is considered a standing herb while Humulus a twining or trailing, interwoven herb.

Hops have been used for several hundred years as a predominant ingredient in beer. The resin of hop flowers is used to produce distinct bitterness tones, while antimicrobial qualities are used to extend shelf life of the product.

Hemp is cultivated for production of fiber, oil, textiles, and medicinal extracts. Closely related Marijuana is grown for medicinal (and recreational) use as well. Select strains of each have unique chemical profiles of cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD), flavonoids, and terpenes – the latter two responsible for distinct flavors and aromas associated with cannabis extracts and products.

Hemp versus Hops Cultivation and Processing

As with cannabis, female unpollinated hops plants typically display the richest production of resins and oils and are therefore selectively grown. Cannabis and Humulus both exist as a variety - save for a wine term "varietals" - linking differences in strains and growth locales with distinct flavor profiles.

Strains can be naturally cross-pollinated, therefore conditions to ensure proper growth of distinct strains (e.g. low-THC hemp) are often important considerations. Each strain variety brings its own “preferences” for harvesting times, which vary with the strain, location, soil conditions, and other parameters as well.

Marijuana grows typically as short bushy plants whereas hemp grows as tall single main stalks with few leaves and branches. Hops also grows tall, although as long climbing vines upwards of 20-30 feet in length.

Hemp for practical use is typically harvested for seed oil or stalks. The equipment used in the process includes implements and techniques specific for the desired product -- fiber harvests make use of longer cuts whereas seed harvests raise the height, targeting only the upper portion of the plant.

Marijuana plants produce female flowers and hops plants produce female flower cones. Both types of flowers display intrinsic signs of ripeness, and determination of the right time to harvest lies in the eyes, nose, and hands of the grower. Both types of flowers can be hand picked and trimmed according to desired readiness, and both require immediate drying to prevent mold and rot.

Post-harvest hemp processing requires milling and grinding machines designed for the tough, course texture of hemp stalks, often in large batch quantities. Fine grinding mills with adaptable sieves are well-suited for marijuana flower, which require small particle uniformity in order to maximize extraction or consumption. Hops are typically added in whole or pelleted form during dry hop brewing, either directly or via a mesh containment vessel.

The Terpene Connection between Hemp and Hops

Apart from lineage, the main similarities between cannabis and hops are the production of aromatic terpene compounds which underly the complex flavors and fragrances of both plants. These highly volatile aromatic cyclic hydrocarbon compounds vary in form and complexity in step with the diverse variety of hops or cannabis used in brewing or consumption.

Over the ages of cultivation, certain classes and types of terpenes have been selected against (or selected for) in achieving the desired profiles for use. Mycrene, caryophyllene, humulene, limonene, and pinenes – all have unique chemistries, aromas, and some biological effects as well. The terpene contents of Cannabis are more diverse than Humulus, although hops contain myrcene, caryophyllenes and others, some of which have known and pronounced physiological effects. For instance, caryophyllene is believed to interact with endocannabinoid receptors and may increase the bioavailability of cannabinoids such as THC and CBD.

Buds versus Beer

Due to the natural synergy between the two, its intuitive that beer and cannabis be explored for terpenes and chemical profiles that combine to produce desirable qualities and effects. There is another twist to this story however.

Beer and alcohol firms are watching the cannabis industry closely, and some even getting involved directly, as there are certain competitive advantages of cannabis over alcohol – the fact that alcohol can be consumed only as a liquid versus the multitude of consumables routes of cannabis is a key difference.

The shift in mentality as cannabis becomes more accepted and alcohol producers become further invested, means that we will likely see new products such as infused alcoholic beverages gain greater presence.

Research into the diverse yet complementary qualities and chemical profiles of hemp versus hops will only make the field more interesting. Indeed, a recently sampled a hemp infused india pale ale gave the aroma of greater and greener things to come.

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