Wouldn’t it be nice for a homebrewer to grow and harvest his/her own hops? Granted, it is not hard to find hops especially in local homebrew stores or through the Internet. Still, as someone with a passion for the craft of brewing, it could be quite rewarding to actually grow hops personally.
Surely, it could be the best quality hops for one’s own unique brand of beer! After all, the best products come from one’s own sweat and tears, so to speak. Growing one’s own hops is being on a whole new level.
Not to Skipping Hops
But what is “hops”? A homebrewing rookie could be at a loss and this is the perfect time to teach the newbie before he does anything else to make his/her first-ever brew. Lack of knowledge could be a recipe for failure.
For starters, hops (Humulus lupulus) or the perennial Hop plant is the basic ingredient in beer. It thrives in most moderate climates and is quite easy to grow. That only makes things more practical for brewers to raise hops themselves. If hops can grow in their own backyards, then that will save them a bit of the cost and they can make sure to raise good quality plants.
The best part is it has various beneficial qualities. It has anti-bacterial, anti-anxiety, anti-viral, and anti-oxidant qualities. What’s more, hops has a calming and relaxing effect, a mug of a hot hops tea would make for a peaceful, good night’s sleep.
If the plant becomes invasive, however, that would be a source of some stress. Do remember that it’s only a sign of poor land management practices.
The Hop plant is hardy and, from the rootstock, grows vines that reach up to 25 feet per season, producing one-half to two pounds of dried flowers under good weather condition. Those vines die back once harvested.
Meanwhile, the rhizome that’s part of the rootstock has the buds meant for propagation.
“Rhizome, also called creeping rootstalk,…capable of producing the shoot and root systems of a new plant. Rhizomes are used to store starches and proteins and enable plants to perennate (survive an annual unfavourable season) underground. In addition, those modified stems allow the parent plant to propagate vegetatively (asexually), and some plants, such as poplars and various bamboos, rely heavily on rhizomes for that purpose…Notably, the rhizomes of some species…are edible and valued for their culinary applications.” (Britannica.com)
Needless to say, the rhizome is an integral part of the brewing process as hops grows from them. Do know that it takes two to three years before the rhizome matures and the plant is ready to be used for brewing purposes.
How to Grow Hops at Home
Having decided to grow his/her own hops in the backyard, a brewer must follow the steps and tips in growing hops.
1. Think about the kind of hops to grow.
Do a research on this to find out what strain of hop rhizomes to prefer. For instance, if the hops are to be put in different batches, choose mild, all-purpose, bittering hops. That can be used in various beer styles. For resiny India Pale Ales, however, choose a more specific hop like Newport.
Do more research to find out where to buy those specific hop rhizomes. Approach local nurseries as they may be selling hops. There are local stores that allow enlistment. That means those in the list will be contacted once the rhizomes arrive. Some retailers may offer pre-sales (even as early as January), which should only be an alternative if the preferred variety is particular and in-demand. Be prepared to pay extra for rare varieties.
If local stores or nurseries do not sell hops, have hops mail-ordered in a dormant state.
2. Check the calendar.
The quick suggestion regarding when to buy rhizomes is in March or April. Understandably as that is the earliest time after the snow has melted. February may be possible as long as the snow is gone.
Growing hops on frozen grounds is not only impossible but not a smart idea. Exposing hops to light frost alone is already not okay. Local climate matters. Hops can thrive in temperatures between -30 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
If the buyer will still be waiting until it is time to plant, store rhizomes wrapped in a plastic bag. Keep them just slightly moistened and kept in a refrigerator or cool place. It is important to keep the moisture in and keep the rhizomes away from light. They can only be planted when the ground is not frosty anymore.
3. Scope out and select possible sites or growing areas.
Wait till the ground has thawed and when it is beyond winter. If there is still a mild fall, at least begin a little with ground preparations. Basically, the location should receive plenty (six to eight hours) of direct sunlight everyday. Choose a South-facing location. It should have lots of space, be slightly elevated, and have a good drainage system.
Don’t forget that the plant grows vertically or upwards. Therefore, it is highly recommended that a trellis or other similar support structures like twines be added. The vines can climb onto the structures. It is, incidentally, a great preventive measure against the plant overtaking other vegetation or even buildings. As mentioned early in this article, the vines can grow up to 25 feet.
Also, make sure there are no obstacles like telephone wires and porches for at least 10 feet. That is why the area must be spacious.
4. Prepare the soil.
- Build a mound to plant the rhizomes in. How?
- The soil should be loose, porous, and free from large clumps. This is for proper drainage and to avoid collecting standing water that rots the rhizomes. The soil must be worked at a depth of 12 inches or more.
- Remove any debris (stones, weeds, animal/vegetable matter, etc.). Remove all the weeds near the root so they won’t return.
- Consider a sandy soil as it is the best type to go for for this purpose. Or mix sand with clay for fine results as well.
- Include and fertilize the soil with manure and organic matter (rock phosphate, bone meal, blood meal, etc.).
- The soil must have a pH balance of 5.5 to 8.0.
- There should be a mound of soil for each rhizome. Mounds should be three feet (one meter) apart from one another to allow proper growth and prevent overcrowding of hops of the same strain. If the plants are to be of mixed varieties/cultivars, extend the distances to five/six feet (about two meters) or more.
5. Start planting!
It’s spring and it’s time to plant the rhizomes into the ground. Dig a four-inch hole in each mound then lay the rhizome into it, oriented horizontally. Visible buds must point skywards. The soil must be loosely packed over the plant.
To prevent weed growth, cover with straw or mulch. Keep the soil moist until vines start showing.
See also: Brewing Your Own Beer: 12 Reasons Why
6. Nurture, monitor, and maintain the hop plants.
Be vigilant. Check on the plants daily.
Water them frequently for a short duration. Provide enough water to keep the rhizomes moist and for the plants to establish their roots. Do not drown them with too much water or there’ll be the risk of rotting the rhizomes.
Watch out for weeds, aphids, and any formation of powdery mildew.
Support and care for the hops bines properly. Bines are flexible twining or climbing stems of certain plants — they climb by the shoots.
They must be gently wrapped around simple lengths of twines or trellis systems. Make sure that they are very sturdy for when the plants are fully-grown.
Wait for them to grow up to six inches then “train” them for a few days.
Remove damaged or weak shoots.
Each hop plant must be able to grow four to six bines.
Wait for a few months then trim the leaves off the bottom two feet. That will prevent the plants from getting damaged by diseases and fungi.
Continue caring for the hops until late summer.
7. It’s time to harvest.
When the cones turn brown or lighten in color and begin to dry and become papery, that means it’s time to literally reap what has been sown. Expect this by late August or early September. (The harvest dates will vary, though, depending on one’s location and its current season.) That’s the practical way. But harvest before reaching autumn’s first frost.
Break open a hop cone. There should be a strong aroma. Roll the cone between the fingers. There should be yellowish residue left. That says the hops is ready for harvesting.
Some would most probably prefer the more scientific approach. It’s called the Dry Matter Test:
“The idea behind the test is that hops cones dry as they age, and picking them at their peak means catching them when they’ve hit just the right moisture level.” (Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine)
How does it go?
- Near harvest time, pluck a representative sample by pulling cones from plants of the same variety. Remove hops from near the top of the trellis.
- Weigh the harvest and make a record of the weight.
- Dry the hops fully using a food dehydrator or a conventional oven. Choose the lowest heat setting and keep checking to prevent burning. Monitor weight to check the dehydration process. The drier the sample becomes, the lighter the weight. It will level off when there’s no more moisture.
- Divide the new weight by the original weight. The result is the dry matter percentage, which should be 22% to 24%. If they hit the target moisture level, then it’s time to harvest all. If not, wait for a day or two then do the test again.
Scientific approach aside, harvesting hops should really be just based on common sense.
Anyway, it’s the cones that should be picked off the vines, excluding the leaves. Lower bines to get the flowers. Gently twist the ripe hop cones off while temporarily leaving still-unripened ones be. Lay down flat cut bines to pull off the cones. For next season, cut bines an inch above the ground level and cover with mulch.
Let the cones dry until the inner stems (strings) turn brittle and break. Flip them from time to time to allow the other side to dry, too. Let them air-dry on a mesh screen, that would be better. In colder climates, the use of the dehydrator and/or oven are recommended. Don’t use temperatures in excess of 140°F.
8. Store dried homegrown hops properly.
Pack the hops in an airtight container or vacuum seal them to prevent oxidation. Preserve freshness by freezing the hops until they are to be used. They can last for a year as long as they are well-stored.
Brew, Chill, and Drink
The hops are ready for brewing! Growing one’s own hops is an exciting and rewarding experience. Soon, friends, family and, of course, the brewer, will drink the fruits of his/her labor.
But wait! One’s hard work is best enjoyed chilled. And so, while waiting for the hops to grow and ripen, find time to get the right stuff that should help make beer batches the best anybody will ever taste. Get a kegerator. Preserve newly brewed beer and chill. With a kegerator, keep it fresh and awesome!
To find out more about growing hops at home, DIY homebrewing, and the perfect kegerator to suit a beer enthusiast, make sure to drop by KegFridge.com. They will be happy to assist and answer questions.