Growing Your Own Hops: So Easy You Don’t Need to Read This

Thu 1 Oct 2015 - Filed under: Not a Journal., , | Leave a Comment | Posted by: Michael

IMG_2024“Hops are a wicked and pernicious weed” said Henry VIII in 1519—at least according to a t-shirt I bought from the excellent Wicked Weed Brewing of Asheville, NC. Their point being ironic: ole Henry doesn’t know what he’s talking about; they love hops, we all love hops. Except, of course, for those of us who don’t—and not without reason: craft brewers have conspired to beat our taste buds to death with them. I sympathize with the hop haters. For years I counted myself among them, as becomes obvious on paging back through Literary Beers past on how to brew beers bittered with sage, rosemary, alehoof, sweet fern, chamomile, yarrow, wormwood, spruce, chiles and cacao. Inevitably, however, all-encompassing lover of fermented culture that I am, hops brought me back around. Take it from someone who’s devoted years of homebrewing experimentation to figuring out how to brew beer without them: hops are delicious. Thanks to an explosion of new breeds, they’re available in as many varieties and as complex flavors as wine grapes or cider apples. Used with discretion, they’re a balm for every palate. Used with abandon, they possess the palate-killing power to move even the hardcorest of neckbearded hopheads to tears—but this latter proclivity among beer nerds was only half the reason I spent years avoiding hops in my homebrew. The other half was what it took to get them. Hop shortages in the US and UK drove up prices, necessitating the importation of hops, at significant cost in dollars and fossil fuels, from Germany, the Czech Republic, Australia, New Zealand. I want my ingredients as local, low-cost and low-footprint as I can get them. Which motivation found me hunting hop substitutes in the woods, where footprints were literally all I had to give to get them. Once I found myself in possession of a little land, it was only a matter of time before I tried growing my own hops. As it turns out, it’s easy—ridiculously so, as long as you live someplace cool and wet, ideally within a half-dozen degrees of the 42nd parallel.

Follow me to learn how.

Planting

IMG_2096Hops are easily propagated via rhizomes, which can be had at small cost over the internet, from your local homebrew supply store or by petitioning a friend. Want some of mine? If you want to wean yourself off dependence on foreign supply like I did, you would do well to get several varieties so you don’t get bored. Conversely, hops are prolific: if you don’t want to risk being buried in hop cones come the end of September, don’t plant too many vines. I went with three reliable American breeds in hopes they’d have better chance of thriving in my Southeast Michigan soil (and thrive they did): Willamette, an earthy, medium-bitter Pacific NW cultivar of the famed British East Kent Goldings; Nugget, one of the earliest of the new generation of high-bitterness breeds which eventually yielded Columbus, Magnum, Chinook and their children; and Cascade, the now-classic, piney, pineappley West Coast hop responsible for the flavors of Sierra Nevada et al. The rhizomes come wrapped in plastic, usually with some damp substrate to help keep them moist. Put them in the fridge to simulate the cool ground of winter and thus keep them dormant while you prepare the soil.

Best time to plant is late spring, when the ground is cool but has warmed and dried out enough to be workable: early May in my neck of the rustbelt, late April in Western MA. Pick a spot that gets as much sun as you’ve got (or, if you bought three varieties, pick three different spots and mark them so you’ll be able to tell the varieties apart). Till the soil and amend it with compost. Hops like slightly acidic, loamy, well-drained soil but are fairly tolerant of variations on that theme. Plant the rhizomes level with the surface about six inches down. Tamp down the soil, water well, wait. I venture to quote Mr. Papazian’s old saw, “relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.”

Growing

Hop flowers in June just starting to set

Hop flowers in June just starting to set; I suspect the white parts are nascent lupulin glands?

When he called them “wicked and pernicious”, His Majesty that most self-indulgent of Tudor kings was speaking (or, probably, quoting; the origin of the phrase is disputed) not only out of personal preference but patriotism, on behalf of his nation’s until then traditional preference for unhopped ale over hopped beer. Hops, at the time, were largely grown on the continent, so a growing thirst for hops in England meant a loss of revenue to imports. However, as I’ve learned since putting a few hop rhizomes in the ground, he was also speaking literally. Hops are perennial, cold-hardy and will keep producing for years and years. They’re resistant to most pests and disease, they don’t need pruned or sprayed or hardly any attention paid at all. (Once, I had to get the hose and spray off an infestation of june bugs chewing on the new leaves; I did this a few times and they never came back.) The vines can grow a foot a day, and they spread like…well, like weeds. Under the right circumstances, if you let them, they’ll take over your garden. In the first year, they’ll devote most of their energy to root production and produce only a modest crop; in the second you’ll be ripping up hop runners left and right to keep them from choking out the tomatoes (hint: plant tomatoes elsewhere).

Existing, garage-supported hop trellis on the left; new, freestanding trellis on the right, ready for next year.

Existing, garage-supported hop trellis on the left; new, freestanding trellis on the right, ready for next year.

Hops climb vigorously as high as twenty feet. They’ll flower as low as a few feet off the ground, which makes harvesting easy, but the sweet spot for commercial cone production as I understand it is 12 feet and up. So you’re going to want to give them some form of support. I’ve used a tipi structure made of wooden poles, heavy twine strung between a wooden stake and the peak of my garage, a wrought-iron trellis with wisteria growing up the opposite side, a chain-link fence, and a tree. They all work, but I like the garage method best so far: makes for easy harvesting, and it looks pretty. Hop vines can be trained as with grapes: every few days, go out and twist any stray new growth around the support structure.

Because they grow so fast, hops use up a lot of soil nutrients; over the course of the summer I feed them four or five times with a half gallon or so of diluted worm compost tea.

Harvesting

Unripe on the left, ripe on the right

When hop vines reach the upper limit of their climbing support, they’ll start to branch out. Then, when late June or July rolls around, they’ll develop lots of little white starbursts—the beginnings of the flowers which will develop through August and September into the familiar cones we know and love. When the cones start to fluff up, dry out, pale in color and develop haloes of bright yellow powder around the base of the bracts, they’re ripe. Where I live, this happens…as we speak. The Willamette vine came ripe around September 15th, the Cascade and Nugget around September 30th.

Hop vines don’t overwinter—they’ll drop leaves and cling forlonly to their supports through the wind and snow, but come spring, new growth sprouts from the roots, not the previous year’s vine. So it’s safe to cut the vines down at harvest time for easier picking. Personally, though, I like the look of my vines, and I purposely string them low enough I can reach them where they are. I hang a cloth shopping bag around my neck, put on work gloves (lupulin is actually quite itchy if you get it on your hands) and a silly sun hat and go at it. Harvesting my three vines takes 5-6 hours over the course of a few days and yields 15-20 gallons.

Ripe hop cross-section: the yellow stuff is lupulin aka hop resin.

Ripe hop cross-section: the yellow stuff is lupulin aka hop resin.

Once harvested, hops can be used right away (“wet hopping” or “fresh hopping”) or dried. I used stacked window screens on my screened-in back porch for plenty of ventilation. Drying takes about a week, depending on the weather; the cones open out even further and may turn just slightly brown. Then I divide them into gallon freezer bags from which I suck out as much air as I can before sealing. One bag holds about 2 oz, a reasonable amount for a 5 gallon batch of beer. I freeze whatever I can find room for in the freezer and fridge the rest.

My harvest this year has yielded about 20 ounces of whole dried hops by weight, enough to brew 50 gallons of modestly hopped ale or maybe 15 gallons of ye Hop Death Imperial IPA.

Use

Drying hops on screens

Hops drying on window screens, with souvenir beer stein

Properly dried and stored, hops will last a year or two, but the faster they get used the better. They can be employed in brewing exactly as you would storebought, compressed hop pellets of the same variety, with the following caveats:

  • Whole hop cones will cause boiling wort to froth up significantly upon each addition and therefore need to be added more gradually, with attentiveness and stirring to prevent boilover.
  • Whole hop cones absorb more liquid than compressed hops, which means a bit less liquid volume goes into your primary fermenter. I consider this loss negligible; all the absorbed liquid ends up in my compost pile anyway, making more nutrients to feed next year’s hop crop.
  • Storebought hops have been meticulously lab-tested to determine their exact alpha acid content, allowing you to replicate the amount of bittering, hop aroma and flavor added to each batch. Homegrown hops are more variable, which means the end result will be more variable. On the homebrew forums, you’re likely to hear people using this variability as an excuse to declare homegrown hops utterly worthless. I think that’s ridiculous. The whole point of homebrewing is experimentation, distinctiveness, uniqueness. If you really want the exact same beer over and over, put down that homebrew and open a Budweiser. Otherwise, screw your courage to the sticking point and roll the dice. Trust me, everything will turn out fine. As a rule of thumb, I assume my hops’ alpha acid content to be average for the variety in question: 5% for Willamette, 6.5% for Cascade, 8% for Nugget. Nothing has gone horribly wrong. The result has always been delicious.

Some non-alcoholic applications to try, now that you’ve got hops in abundance and in non-powdered form:

  • Hop tea: steep three or four dried hop cones in 8 oz near-boiling water, steep until green-golden, add honey and sip on a cool early fall afternoon. Medicinally, hop tea is a digestive aid, stimulates the appetite and acts as a mild sedative on the level of chamomile or valerian. And it’s delicious. This also makes a nice way of experimenting with new herb and hop combinations for beer and gruit.
  • Hop-flavored pickles: Add dozen or so hop cones to a quart mason jar along with vinegar, salt and whatever vegetable you’ve got in excess from the garden, put it in the fridge for a week and enjoy.
  • Hop bread: Substitute a half dozen hop cones for dill or caraway seed in a rye or herb bread. No need to even chop them up; the kneading process will break them up on its own.
  • Taste a whole, raw hop. Trust me, it’s worth trying once for the experience. Raw hops are lovely, aromatic, piney, minty, slightly chewy, with a murderously bitter aftertaste for which you’re going to want some kind of chaser: an apple or a piece of bread. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If the recipes and ruminations above look like gibberish to you, please refer to a good homebrew how-to book such as The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, or have a look into the Literary Beer back catalog. There’s a much more in-depth step-by-step brewing process in the Honey Porter entry, and more about bottling at Bottling Your Homebrew. Good luck.

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