written by Joseph Bair
Looking over the craft brew bottles and cans in fridges reminds me of flipping through album cover artwork in record stores. Many labels have hop cone graphics, which look like small green pine cones (to those who do not know hops). They fit “life size” cones on most labels because they only grow up to 3” long and 1.25” across.
Yet, all brewers know the hop cone is just gift wrapping around the Lupulin sacs, which is where all the important brewing chemicals are stored. Those specialized tongue-shaped leaves (which is why they are sometimes called “whole leaf hops”) that make up the cone are discarded at the end of the boil. They are never part of the finished product. These green tongue-looking leaves soak up valuable barley sugars and clog up the plumbing in breweries. Still, they are preferred by some brewers over hop pellets or hop oils because they are processed less.
The appeal of the hop cone images on labels is far greater than graphics of barley, water, and yeast—the other ingredients of beer. It bewildered me, so I researched on what the visual magic of hop cones may be. Why is it so pleasing to look at?
To explain the obsession and popularity of hop cones, I had to search many disciplines to find clues, but never found the answer. I found that hop cones may hold a visually fundamental equation that physically instructs all of nature’s aesthetics, symmetry and structure; but this has yet to be discovered. Or are we just admiring another female reproductive bio-factory? Why are hop cones the worldwide symbol of parsimony? My conclusion is that hop cones portray an obvious product that people see and like, but don’t really understand the sub-text. Here are some plausible explanations…
The Whole Truth of Phyllotaxis
We like to look at nature from the outside, we admire its beauty, but we must go further and investigate the inside. For most, beauty just happens in nature, it’s not complicated. Scholars take up the complicated challenge and make mathematical and physical models so we can try to understand it. Sweden honors them with a Nobel Prize if they do.
The mathematical study of plant pattern formations is called Phyllotaxis or “leaf arrangement.” Despite all these big-sounding names and mathematical equations, the visual beauty and simplicity of a hop cone is mesmerizing.
Numerically, this math is easy to understand; it is just repeating, periodic patterns. Just look at the numbers 0,1,1, 2,3,5,8,13… all you’re doing is adding the previous two numbers to get the next number. It is explained mathematically by the Fibonacci Sequence; named for Leonardo Fibonacci after his 1202 AD book, Liber Abaci. His code was the result of watching rabbits multiply! I also think it had roots in medieval Islamic Girih tile patterns, put together with the 800 AD Vedic Square mathematical table, because Arabic numerals replaced Roman numerals in the 15th century, and they were far more advanced in this field, due to the number zero
When you look at pine cones, strawberries, or pineapples, you’ll see the same intractable visual geometries and mathematical pattern as a hop cone, a center spindle with counter orbital spiral and whorled patterns, spinning around and holding and protecting the core. The hop cone’s shell structure spirals going clockwise (“sinister”) and counterclockwise (“dexter”) usually are two consecutive Fibonacci Sequence numbers. Also, the hop leaves climbing the trellis will also follow the Fibonacci Sequence for optimal sunlight for photosynthesis.
Combining Fibonacci numbers (or similar, Lucas numbers 2,1,3,4,7,11,18…) it is estimated that 90% of all plants exhibit patterns or leaves favorable to these number sequence patterns. These sequential numbers divided are the “golden ratio,” which is found to be expressed in all studied disciplines. If you plot each number on a two-axis graph and round off, you get an approximation of a spiral, like a nautilus shell or hurricanes, universes, and galaxies. It is easy to see that microcosm looking whorl mimics the macrocosm coil. Are hops pleasing to look at because it is an image of a higher purpose, such as a visual tool of the model of the universe, or is it just a beer label decoration?
I Sing the Plant Womb
Specta cular To call the cones hop flowers or a fruit is an inaccurate application of the botanical terms. Thus, the term “catkins” is used. The hop cones do not resemble a cat’s tail like other “catkins” do, but instead have this functioning tongue shaped Armadillolooking armor.
Sometimes forgotten by brewers and drinkers, the hop cone is the necessary protection for the female hop plant’s reproductive system. Once pollinated by the wind of the male, the inside of the hop cone grows one seed, which feeds on the Lupulin glands as its yoke. The female hop plant’s reproductive system is the hop cone, which is nature’s elaborate design of the womb for the hop seed—which eventually looks like a clunky, round nut.
In the past 30 years, most brewers and growers dislike the seeds because they add growing, weight and straining problems. Some English brewers say they add more bitterness and like hops with seeds. Due to the majority of brewer demands, female hops are becoming mostly seedless triploids, which have effectively neutered the female hop plant’s reproductive organs.
There is another discipline called Floriography (which is the study of coded, unspoken, cryptologic messages sent with plants and flowers). I suspect the way hops became known for social injustice came about in the hop picking fields of Kent, England. Two famous writers of that time, American Jack London and Brit George Orwell (Eric Blair), each wrote essays on hop picking in Kent. These short stories portrayed the hop pickers or “hoppers” as being exploited with non-livable wages and horrendous living conditions. Hops thus became synonymous with social injustice. Jack London accused the brewers of parsimony, but he was sympathetic to the hop farmers who did not get paid much for the work it took to produce their product.
So simply put—it is just like giving roses to the ones we love on Valentine’s Day. Giving hops expresses “injustice.” The World Day of Social Justice is February 20th. It would make some wonderful looking and smelling baskets, eh?
There is a Conclusion
The hop cone harvesting at the end of the perennial growth cycle appears to be a fine example of biological mutualism between the hop plant and human farmers, brewers, and beer drinkers. This differs greatly with predation and parasitism with humans using animals before the end of the life cycle. In the end, we get craft beer with nice hop graphic labels, really, how bad can that be?