In season: Hops are for cooking as well as brewing

These fresh hops were harvested earlier this year at the Ruhstaller hopyard in Dixon.
These fresh hops were harvested earlier this year at the Ruhstaller hopyard in Dixon. Courtesy Ruhstaller Beer

Growing up 20-foot poles along Interstate 80 this summer was a throwback crop to Sacramento’s past: hops.

“People would drive by and wonder, why are they growing peas in Dixon?” joked J-E Paino, owner of Ruhstaller Beer and that fledgling hop farm. “But we grow beer.”

Hops – a cornerstone of beer flavor – are once again at home in the Sacramento Valley. And as more farmers, backyard gardeners and cooks become familiar with this ancient herb, the more they enjoy the unique flavors that hops can deliver – in drink or food.

“Sacramento was the Napa Valley of hops,” Paino said. “This was where the highest quality hops were grown. We’re trying to bring back that tradition.”

Paino grows 7 acres of hops, including 51/2 acres planted this year. Hops are harvested in September and October and dried for use throughout the year.

“We used to have tens of thousands of acres of hops around Sacramento,” Paino said.

Generations past were familiar with Sacramento’s hop cycle. Century-old hop kilns, used to properly dry and cure the flowers, still stand near Sloughhouse.

“Campus Commons was home to the largest hop farm in the world,” said J.J. Jackson, owner of the Original Home Brew Outlet in Sacramento. “There was nothing but hops all the way to Sloughhouse. It’s only recently that hops have been reintroduced.”

The price of land and pungency of local hop varieties pushed this crop to other states, and now only about 65 acres of hops are grown in California. Eastern Washington has become the nation’s hops hotbed, accounting for about 30,000 acres. Oregon ranks second with 5,600 acres, mostly in the Willamette Valley.

Sacramento’s hops history goes back to the Gold Rush, thanks to early German, Swiss and Dutch settlers. They brought hop rhizomes – knotty roots that resprout each spring – to plant in Sacramento’s fertile river bottom lands. By 1900, Sacramento had become a hops empire to supply the area’s many breweries.

Cast off and abandoned after World War II when the hops industry moved north, some rhizomes now grow wild in Sacramento ditches.

“It’s basically a weed,” said Jackson, who has grown hops for his own beer making.

Hops – which are the plant’s female flowers – grow on vines that thrive in dry heat, typical during Sacramento summers. The “California cluster” varieties that grow best here have strong, distinct flavors and aromas.

“The vines can grow a foot a day,” Paino said. “Sacramento has incredibly fertile soil, plenty of water – most of the time – and long hot summer days. They love those 100-degree days.”

While many people are familiar with hops as a beer ingredient, their use to flavor food is still a novelty.

“Chefs are coming up with interesting ideas,” said Paino.

For example, The Grange in Sacramento recently served hops-infused house-made mustard to go with its hoppy sausage. Hops-infused honey was used to top a malted barley custard.

“Hops are the ‘spice’ of beer, and they play a similar role when added to food recipes,” said Jennifer Glanville, manager of Samuel Adams’ Boston brewery.

Glanville worked with celebrity chef David Burke to come up with some recipes spiced with hops. The results – such as hops-infused ice cream, hot chocolate and churros – were intriguing (what was that underlying flavor?) and surprisingly delicious. The hops’ natural bitterness contrasted with the sweetness found in these confections.

“Hops can certainly work wonders on a meal, adding lots of robust flavors, aromas and textures,” Burke said of adding hops to recipes. “If you’re still a bit timid, test run them as a condiment – a garnish for mashed potatoes, or sprinkled on soup. A hop-diment!”

Part of his recipes’ success comes from the choice of hops: Tettnang Tettnanger, an aromatic hop with less bitterness. It’s one of the main hops used in Sam Adam’s flagship Boston lager.

“Tettnang Tettnanger and Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops contribute a soft bitterness, a delicate lemony citrus flavor, resinous pine notes and some herbal character,” Glanville said.

Like spices, different hops add layers of complexity. Beer makers like to mix and match hops to create greater depth of flavor. He encouraged cooks to experiment with different hops and combinations just like beermakers.

“Cooking with hops is still a fresh idea and there aren’t a lot of precedents,” Glanville said. “Cooking with beer isn’t new ... but cooking with hops is uncharted territory.”

There are so many craft brewers as well as home beer-makers, demand is high for hops.

“It’s pretty crazy trying to find the hops I need,” said Ed Kopta, brewmaster at Sacramento’s Hoppy Brewing Co. “One of our specialties uses Citra hops, and it’s very difficult for me to get just one box.”

A little hops goes a long ways. For a 500-gallon batch of his Hoppy Face amber ale, Kopta uses 900 pounds of malt and 20 pounds of hops, a 45-to-1 ratio. “We’ll have 10 to 12 varieties of hops on hand at any one time,” said Kopta.

“Without hops, beer would be way too sweet; it would be undrinkable,” he said. “Hops are what make you crave that next sip.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

Hops 101

Nutrition: Hops are the female flowers (or cones) of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. This herb is used primarily to flavor beer, but it also contains such essential oils as myrcene, humulene, caryophyllene and farnesene that act as natural antibacterial agents (as well as provide hops’ distinctive aroma). Hops are high in Vitamins E, C and B6 (all antioxidants). Phytoestrogens in hops can mimic the hormone estrogen, boosting bone and heart health as well as promoting milk production in nursing mothers.

Culinary hops spirits: This product, introduced by Rave Review Original Culinary Spirits, is like liquid hops for cooks. It’s easy to use and offers intense hop flavor and scent. Find it online at; a 200-ml bottle is $10.99.

Selection: Let your nose lead the way. Fresh hops have a strong scent. Mature hops may be dark green to gold in color. Hops are often pelletized for use in beer making; these hop pellets look similar to rabbit food, but should still have some scent.

Storage: Hops can stay fresh for at least a year. Pelletized hops store much longer. Store in a cool, dark, dry place or freeze in a vacuum-packed or sealed package.

Use: Beer making accounts for the vast majority of hops use, although this herb is gaining favor as an ornamental garden plant. As an herb or flavoring, a little hops goes a long ways. Hops release their bitterness when boiled.

Alpha herb: Hops contain two acids (alpha and beta) that affect beer’s taste and aroma, respectively. The more alpha acids in the hops, the more bitter the beer. These acids also divide hops by use; “bittering hops” tend to have higher levels of alpha acids, while “aroma hops” have lower levels. Varieties may be separated by the amount of alpha acids by weight (AABW); traditional European (or noble) varieties have 5 to 9 percent AABW while some newer American hybrids have 8 to 19 percent. Hop bitterness also may be measured in International Bitterness Units (IBUs).

The noble varieties include Hallertau, Tettnanger, Spalt and Saaz; they are all lower in AABW and high in aroma. Because the essential oils boil off in beer making, these aroma hops are added near the end of the beer making process.

Cure for stress: As a medicinal herb, hops are believed to promote relaxation and relieve stress. They also may relieve anxiety, soothe digestion and aid sleep. To that end, hops are traditionally tucked into pillows (along with lavender and other fragrant herbs) to help induce restful sleep.

History: Hops have been used in European beer making at least since 1000 A.D. and have been cultivated as a medicinal plant in Germany since about 700 A.D. Throughout western Europe, villagers made and drank beer because it was safer than water. Early beers were flavored with a variety of herbs and plants such as dandelion, marigold and heather. But those early brewers discovered beer made with hops didn’t spoil due to the antibacterial qualities of this herb. Hops were brought to North America by beer-making Dutch colonists circa 1629.

Hop nation: With its long beer-making tradition, Germany leads the world in hop production, but specializes in the milder “aroma” varieties. United States production is heavily concentrated in Eastern Washington and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. More than 40 varieties are grown commercially for beer production in the U.S.

Hemp connection: Hops are a cousin of hemp, cannabis and marijuana; their leaves and flowers are similar. Fresh hops also may smell like marijuana, but they do not share the same cannabinoids. Hop vine fibers can be used like hemp, but aren’t as strong.

Warning for pet owners: Hops are poisonous to dogs. Some people may also develop skin rashes and other reactions to handling hops.

Debbie Arrington

Where to buy hops

The best local hop sources cater to home brewers. The Original Home Brew Outlet (5528 Auburn Blvd. Suite No. 1, Sacramento, (916) 348-6322, offers several hop varieties including Tettnanger, Hallertaur, Mt. Hood, Cystal, Centenial and Liberty. These brewing suppliers also offer hop rhizomes for planting (sold out, but new pre-orders will be accepted in January for next year). The Brewmeister has brewing supply stores in Folsom, Roseville and West Sacramento. All carry several varieties of hops, which are also available online at In addition, the Brewmeister hosts classes for beginning brewers.

Beef and brew veggie stew

Serves 4

This slow-cooked stew uses culinary hops spirits, not beer, to give it a heady flavor. Available from Rave Review, these spirits offer hop flavor in a liquid form designed for cooking, not drinking. (You may substitute a very hoppy beer for the culinary hops spirits.) Recipe courtesy Rave Review Original Culinary Spirits.


1 pound lean stew meat

1/2 cup onion, chopped

11/2cups culinary hops spirits

2 1/2 cups low-fat, low-sodium beef broth

1 1/2 cups carrots, chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

5 mushrooms, sliced

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt

1 medium potato, peeled and cubed

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

Sprigs of fresh thyme

Cooking spray


In a medium skillet coated with cooking spray, brown meat and onion; drain off fat. Transfer meat and onion to slow cooker. Stir in culinary hops, beef broth, carrots, potato, celery, mushrooms, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and allspice. Cover and cook on low-heat setting for 8 to 10 hours or until vegetables are tender. Remove bay leaf. Garnish with fresh thyme.

Lime-ale grilled chicken

Serves 4

Culinary hops spirits substitute for ale in this flavorful marinade.

Recipe courtesy Rave Review Original Culinary Spirits.


1 lime, juiced

11/2cups culinary hops spirits

1 teaspoon honey

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Salt and pepper

4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves


In a bowl, mix the lime juice, culinary hops, honey, garlic, cilantro, and salt and pepper until the honey dissolves. Pour the mixture over the chicken, cover and marinate for 30 minutes. Heat grill pan.

Remove chicken from marinade and shake off excess; discard remaining marinade. Grill chicken until tender and juices run clear, about 7 minutes per side.

Samuel Adams hops-infused ice cream

Makes 1 quart

Celebrity chef David Burke came up with this unusual ice cream flavor for Samuel Adams Brewing Co. Burke served it as the filling in a “doughnut slider” made with beer-batter doughnuts and beer-infused orange caramel sauce.

Recipe courtesy Samuel Adams Brewing Co.


1 cup Tettnang Tettnanger hop flowers (can substitute U.S. Tettnanger hops)

4 cups milk

2 cups sugar, divided

10 large egg yolks

2 cups heavy cream


In a saucepan, bring milk to heat. When it simmers, add hops, steep about 15 minutes. Strain milk, squeezing out as much liquid as possible.

Put milk and half of sugar (1 cup) back in saucepan. Bring to heat, just about to boil.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the rest of sugar (1 cup) and egg yolks until they lighten in color. Pour some of the milk mixture into eggs by adding small amounts gradually, until about 1/3 of milk mixture has been added.

Pour the egg mixture into the remaining milk mixture in the saucepan, over low heat. Cook, stir frequently, until mixture thickens slightly to coat the back of a spoon or rubber spatula. Remove from heat, add heavy cream. Mix well.

Strain the mixture and put in a container, letting it cool before placing it into refrigerator (to avoid condensation on the lid). Cover and store in refrigerator for 4 to 8 hours, or overnight.

Pour chilled ice cream mixture into an ice cream maker and process according to the manufacturer’s directions.

Hoppy hot chocolate

Serves 4

Celebrity chef David Burke developed this hot chocolate with something extra for Samuel Adams Brewing Co. Recipe courtesy Samuel Adams Brewing Co.


1 cup milk

3 cups heavy cream

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup Tettnang Tettnanger hop flowers (can substitute U.S. Tettnanger hops)

1 cinnamon stick

1 vanilla bean

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

11/4 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips


Bring milk, heavy cream, water, sugar, hops, cinnamon, vanilla bean, nutmeg to boil.

Strain hot milk mixture over chocolate using a sieve. Blend well and serve in mugs.

Hoppy mac and cheese

Serves 10 to 12

This recipe uses culinary hops spirits for a lot of earthy hops flavor.

Recipe courtesy Rave Review Original Culinary Spirits.


1 package (16 ounces) elbow macaroni or cellentani (corkscrew)

1/4 cup butter

2 garlic cloves, minced/chopped

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon ground mustard

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

3/4 teaspoon pepper

2 cups milk

1/2 cup culinary hops spirits

1/4 heavy whipping cream

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, divided

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, divided

5 bacon strips, cooked and crumbled


Cook macaroni al dente. Meanwhile, in a Dutch oven or large skillet, heat butter over medium-high. Add garlic; stir for 1 minute. Stir in the flour, mustard, salt and pepper until smooth; whisk in the milk, culinary hops and cream. Bring to a boil; stir for 2 minutes or until thickened. Reduce heat. Stir in 13/4 cups cheddar cheese and 1 tablespoon Parmesan until melted. Drain pasta; stir into sauce. Sprinkle with remaining cheeses. Broil, uncovered, for 5-8 minutes or until top browns. Top with crumbled bacon.

Samuel Adams churros

Recipe courtesy Samuel Adams Brewing Co.


2 cups milk

1/2 cup Tettnang Tettnanger hop flowers (can substitute U.S. Tettnanger or other aromatic hops)

6 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 large eggs


Bring milk and hops to heat/scald (about 180 degrees). Steep for about 10-15 minutes, then strain.

Take 1 cup of hops-infused milk, butter, and salt. Bring to boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add flour, stir until mixture forms a ball and pulls away from sides of pan, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat, let cool about 3 minutes.

Add eggs one at a time, and stir until batter is smooth. Put mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a large open-star pastry tip.

Set fryer temperature (or vegetable oil in a deep frying pan) to 330 degrees, hold pastry bag a few inches above the oil, squeeze out batter, snipping off 4-inch lengths with a knife or kitchen scissors.

Fry 6-8 churros at a time, turning once, until golden brown. Transfer to paper towel to absorb grease. Roll in cinnamon sugar when still warm.