Most people are familiar with hops as an ingredient in beer, but the herb has a long history of use as an ingredient in traditional herbal bitters, tisanes, tonics and teas. Although the heart-shaped leaves and flower heads have a reputation for providing a bitter, aromatic taste to various beverages, they were once used to produce a brown dye. When not inducing relaxation or sleep as a constituent of ale, hops is a traditional component of herbal sleep pillows along with lavender and dill.
In Medieval Europe, brew masters relied on gruit—a combination of mugwort, dandelion, heather, horehound and other bitter herbs—to produce beer. This changed when it was discovered that hops permitted the fermentation of brewer's yeast but inhibited the growth of other bacteria, which improved both flavor and shelf life.
The same bitter compounds in hops also lend a distinctive flavor to modern tea blends. European herbalists of the 15th century attributed the herb with the power to cleanse the blood and to ease gastrointestinal complaints.* As such, hops was a common ingredient in restorative tonics that typically consisted of beer as the base.