Even if you don’t know much about beer, you have probably heard of hops, a key ingredient in modern beer-making. In addition to functioning as a preservative, hops provide beer with a unique flavor. The cone-shaped flower comes in a variety of strains, and connoisseurs can distinguish them by their aromatic bouquets. Sound familiar?
Because of certain common structural features, Cannabis sativa and Humulus lupulus are the two most economically significant species belonging to the same plant family—Cannabinaceae. While that doesn’t mean much, it is an interesting factoid weed and beer enthusiasts can celebrate.
Both hops and cannabis are green, resinous flowers. They are similarly shaped as well—their buds appear as small cones. Cannabis and hops leaves also share a similar structure. Larger humulus leaves and all cannabis leaves are palmately lobed, which means that the leaves come from a common point the way that fingers all spread from a single palm. In both cases, the leaves are serrated along the margins, giving them a jagged appearance. The leaves also always have stipules (small leaf-like appendages) at the base of their stalks. Finally, both hops and cannabis come in countless varieties or strains, each containing a unique set of flavors and attributes.
Of course, pot and hops differ physically as well. For one, hops plants grow as vines while cannabis plants grow like trees or bushes. Hops vines can get much longer than cannabis plants can get tall—humulus vines can reach up to 30 feet while the tallest cannabis plants can stretch up to 20 feet. Cannabis buds are much fuzzier and denser than hops flowers, which appear to have small, green, and almost translucent petals.
The shared chemical attributes between hops and cannabis are apparent in the way that each plant smells. The compounds responsible for their flavorful scents are called terpenes. Terpenes are volatile chemical compounds that, in addition to smells, express therapeutic attributes as well. Some of the most common terpenes found in hops are beta-pinene, alpha-humulene, and myrcene. These terpenes are also commonly found in cannabis plants.
Another chemical compound housed in both hops and bud are their terpenoids. Terpenoids are derivatives of terpenes synthesized by the process of drying and curing of the two plants’ flowers. The terpenoid responsible for a hop’s bitter flavor is humulone. Humulone belongs to the class of compounds called alpha acids. The compound is also an antimicrobial—it has the antiviral and antibacterial properties that make hops a functional preservative for beer.
The terpenoid that has made cannabis famous is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Like humulone, THC’s potency is activated by the process of drying, curing, and decarboxylation. THC is the cannabinoid responsible for the mind-altering effects most cannabis enthusiasts seek when consuming pot.
A Similarly Legislated History
Both cannabis and hops have been around for a while, and both industries have been shaped by prohibition. But hops differs from cannabis in that it is a younger tradition and has outlived the national ban on the industry it is most associated with—alcohol.
Although beer—a mixture of malted barley, yeast, and water—has been around for ages (since the 5th millennium BC), the introduction of hops into beer brewing became popular as recently as the 15th century. Before hops, beer was flavored with different combinations of herbs, spices, and other plant parts. However, hops’ microbial properties and its depth of flavor have made it the most popular choice today.
During the first half of the 20th century, alcohol was prohibited at the national level. Since the primary economic use of hops was in brewing beer, this definitely affected hops farmers, though its effect was surprising. According to an article by Rogue, simultaneously occurring global events mitigated the negative effects of prohibition. The cultivation and export of hops were not banned, so hops farms actually expanded, and farmers profited by exporting their product to European countries. These countries were known for their beer, but their farmland had been ravaged by the battles of World War I. By the time American alcohol prohibition ended, hops farmers were ready.
Cannabis has had a much less fortuitous journey. Weed has been used for medicinal and recreational purposes for a much longer time than hops has been used to flavor beer. Like hops, cannabis has been found to contain antimicrobial properties. More than that, weed contains antiemetic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and antiproliferative properties that are attributed to catalyzing the wave of medical marijuana programs popping up all over the country.
Despite its medical utility and relative safety as a recreational activity (you can’t overdose on weed), cannabis has been illegal at the national level since the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. That act imposed significant sanctions on those who sold, purchased, or possessed cannabis. Cannabis prohibition reached its climax in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. That law, supported by the Nixon administration, classified cannabis as a Schedule I substance, or one that has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.
As with the national alcohol ban, cannabis prohibition has not worked. Weed is the most widely used illicit substance in the world. The world has also slowly begun to embrace the plant once again. Colombia, Mexico, Germany, Jamaica, Israel, Canada, and Uruguay are a handful of the countries that have revised their laws to be more inclusive of cannabis use for medical or recreational use. While it remains prohibited at the national level in the United States, over half of the fifty states have opted out of the national ban, electing to legalize cannabis for local medical or recreational use.
For beer lovers and cannabis enthusiasts, the relationship between Cannabis sativa and Humulus lupulus is no more than an interesting piece of trivia. However, one thing that the evolution of the hops and pot industries has demonstrated is that prohibition doesn’t work, at least not the way that prohibitionists want it to. As Budweiser’s former marketing chief said about his decision to enter the cannabis industry, “When consumers want something, you ignore it at your own peril.”