By Tim Murray
One of the coolest things about homebrewing is its versatility as a hobby. Some brewers choose to keep things simple with basic equipment and ingredients, while others venture into custom equipment upgrades and even into growing their own ingredients. That’s right, you can grow your own brewing ingredients right at home!
If meeting at the intersection of gardening and brewing sounds cool to you, planting your own hops is a great place to start. Skeptical? Well, for all of you out there who can’t seem to keep any plants alive, this article will walk you through some general ideas on how not to kill your plants. Better yet, what follows will teach you the basics of how to grow one of the most significant contributors to the aroma and flavor of your beers - hops!
Most plants are pretty simple to grow; you only need sun, soil, water and a seed. With hops, you are more likely to plant a rhizome as opposed to a ‘seed’. They can be slightly intimidating to look at, but don’t let that scare you. A rhizome is simply a portion of the underground stem from a previously grown plant. Its parts include rootlets and buds, which are also sometimes referred to as nodes. You will often receive your rhizomes from a supplier in a small plastic bag. They can be stored in the bag, open to air, in a cool (40-50F), dark and moist place. Your pantry will suffice.
While speaking of the basics, let’s get one other thing out of the way: vines or bines? Hop plants technically grow bines. Bines climb using tiny hairs on the stem to move and bend their way upwards. Vines, on the other hand, use tendrils or suckers to hold on to the climbing surface. Now you know.
Honestly, you could drop your rhizome in some dirt and it will probably grow. Hops are weeds after all. But if you want healthy, happy hop plants that grow beautiful and fragrant hops, there are some planting factors to consider:
Hop plants love the sun. Plant them in a location where they can soak it up - six to eight hours per day. If you’re in a residential setting, your best bet is usually on the south side of your home or property (for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere), but any sunny spot will do.
Hop plants thrive in well-draining loamy soil. Whoa, loamy soil? Think of soil like a base malt. There are different types of base malts for different beer styles, much like there are different soils for different types of plants. Pilsner malt is good for, well, pilsners, just like sand is good for succulents. Other types of soils include clay and silt. Loamy soil is actually a mixture of clay, silt and sand. All this aside, you want soil that retains some moisture but drains well-enough that your hop plants are sitting in water. If you’re lucky enough to have that in your yard, you’re all set. Otherwise, consider amending your planting site’s soil with a store bought alternative. One more note on soil: if you’re planting directly in the ground (i.e., not in a container with store bought soil), consider having your soil tested for contaminants. What’s in your soil will be in your plants (and in this case your beer), and anything toxic has no place!
Hop plants drink lots of water. But this is pretty straight forward. If you would brew with it, you can water your plants with it. In most cases water from the garden hose or sprinkler system will do just fine. If you can filter your water for chlorine, that’s a bonus. Like your beer, plants don’t like chlorine either.
Having now considered sun, soil and water, it’s time to plant your hops! You can plant the rhizome during the spring, as soon as the soil can be worked and any threat of a hard frost has passed. And planting couldn’t be simpler; dig a small hole roughly the depth of the rhizome when held at a 45 degree angle. Drop in the rhizome, buds facing up, and cover it with dirt. Some growers then create a mound, or “hill”, by placing roughly 3” of dirt on top of the rhizome. Others, especially home growers, just simply leave the rhizome as it was buried with no extra fuss. Now you wait, relax and enjoy some homebrew.
The first signs of growth.
Within a few weeks, give or take, you’ll begin to see tiny hop bines emerging from the ground. Congratulations! You’re the proud parent of a hop plant. What’s next?
Spend some time constructing your trellis. Your bines may look small now, but they will grow quickly and ultimately get as big as 20-25 feet in length. Your trellis can be as simple as some twine tied off to a tall structure, or a more ornate set of structures. They can run vertical or horizontal, the bines don’t really care. A simple internet search should give you plenty of creative ideas for trellis systems.
Start training your bines. After they reach about a foot in height, your bines can be trained onto your trellis. Simply wrap them around the twine clockwise (counter clockwise if in the southern hemisphere). It may take a few tries, but eventually the bines will grab hold of the twine and start to climb. How many bines per string? Two can grow on a single piece of twine without overloading it, assuming you’re using a reasonably tough piece of twine or rope. You could use a stronger material to support more bines per string, but there are a few things to consider: first, bines will have trouble gripping any sort of metal wire - twine, rope, hemp, etc. work best. Second, an overcrowded string will have the bines competing for sunlight and space to grow, resulting in stress on the plants. And stress leads to lower yields.
Consider fertilizing your plants. As far as fertilizers go, you’re basically looking for something high in nitrogen and low in phosphorus. Citrus and fruit tree food is usually a good choice and can easily be found at your local garden center. You can go organic or not, your choice. How much and how often you fertilize depends on your fertilizer, so just follow the instructions on the box.
Start pruning. Hop plants will grow amazingly fast (six inches per day!) if they can focus their energy on just a few bines. It’s kind of like choosing to put all your energy and resources into brewing lagers - you will eventually brew great lagers! So with your hop plants, prune them down to three-to-four bines per plant. And as they grow, trim any side shoots on the bottom part of the bine in order to promote vertical growth.
Continue to water regularly! This should kind of go without saying, but regular watering is critical. In fact, watering consistently is probably more important than deciding on how much water to water with. A good test to tell if you’re watering the right amount; before watering dig below the surface of the soil an inch or two. If the soil is moist, you’re in good shape. If it’s wet, cut back on how much water you’re doling out (or cut back on how long you water for). If it’s dry, water more. Your plants can also provide a clue about they’re hydration level, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. Search “how to tell if my plant needs water” on the internet for more information.
Beginning to train the bine
You bought the rhizomes, found the perfect spot to plant them and have cared for them over the summer. It’s time for some payout. By August or September, depending on your location, you should have an abundance of hop cones ready to harvest. How do you know for sure they are ready?
Give it a squeeze. Once you think the cones may be ready, pull one or two off the bine and give them a squeeze. If springy, dry and a little sticky to the touch, you’re likely ready to harvest. You’ll also notice the outer leaves of the cone beginning to brown and the cones may sound crunchy when rolled between your fingers. For the ultimate test, pull apart the cone with your fingers. In a mature hop cone you will see the bright-yellow lupulin glands, which contain all the magical resins and oils you’re after. Paydirt.
Harvest. There’s nothing sophisticated to explain here. You pretty much pull cone-by-cone from the bine. Whether you cut the bine down before harvesting is totally up to you, but may be necessary if your crop is located high up in the trellis.
A quick word on yields; hop plants are perennials, meaning they will regrow year after year. Like many fruit bearing perennials, you tend to get a fairly low yield in the first few years, if any. But by year three the plant will show off its full potential. With hops, it’s typical to only see a 50% yield in year one, followed by 75% in year two and 100% in year three.
Fresh hops split open. Note the bright yellow lupulin glands between the leaves.
PACKAGING, STORAGE & USE
When it comes to packaging, storage and use, many of the same principles you would apply to store bought hops apply here. But there are some differences, notably:
Dry them out. If you don’t plan to use your hops ‘wet’, you need to dry them before storage. Food dehydrators work well for this task, especially for smaller quantities. If you have a larger harvest, there are methods involving spreading the hops over large screens and gently moving air around them with a fan. The details of these techniques can be easily found online.
Flush out the oxygen. Just like their store bought counterparts, fresh hops will deteriorate quickly when exposed to oxygen. So once they are dried, package them with as little oxygen as possible. A vacuum sealer is ideal, but if that’s out of your means go with a zip-loc type bag and squeeze out the air before sealing. Then, store them in the freezer. The hops should stay fresh for about a year if packaged carefully.
Just brew already! Wet hop beers can be pretty awesome. And let’s ask ourselves an important question: what’s the point of going through all this growing hops nonsense if you’re not going to host an epic harvest and brew day party? There’s plenty of wet hop beer recipes to go around, but consider a “SMaSH” (single malt and single hop) beer when first brewing with your new hops. Why? First off, it’s difficult to determine the level of alpha acids in your hops without a sophisticated lab. Your variety’s typical range will give you some sense, but a SMaSH beer will give you a more specific idea of the bitterness level achieved with your crop. Second, although your varietal may have certain flavor and aroma characteristics generally, their growing environment (“terroir” if we’re being fancy) has a lot to do with how those characteristics express themselves in beer. And finally, the general rule-of-thumb is to use a 5:1 ratio of wet hops to dry. But, rules of thumb are often wrong. A SMaSH beer gives you a great baseline with which future hop quantity or timing adjustments can be made.
IN THE OFFSEASON
Once temperatures start to dip in the fall and into winter, your hop plants will go dormant. There’s not much for the home hop grower to do during the off season, except to tidy things up. You can cut back all the bines, pretty much to the ground. They will grow back with vigor in the spring. It’s also a good time to prune back the roots in order to keep the plant to a reasonable size. But don’t just throw those roots in the compost bin...these are rhizomes! Use them to plant more hops in your yard or give them to friends to plant in their yard. This is an awesome, and more unique, way to share your love of hops, beer, homebrewing and now gardening with others.
YOU’RE A HOP GROWER NOW
Time has gone by and you’ve managed to not kill your plants...congratulations! But let’s not sugar coat it, growing hops is the long game when it comes to making beer at home. There are easier ways to acquire hops. You could simply buy your hops and you certainly still should. It helps support small businesses and family owned farms. And there’s no way you could ever grow the variety of hops needed to keep your brews interesting (fun fact: it’s also true that some hop varieties can only be grown by licensed growers, aka not you). But the option to grow hops is one of the many things that makes this hobby of homebrewing so darn fun. Why not give it a try and see how green your thumb might be? All it takes is a little sun, soil, water and a rhizome. Oh, and time. But in the words of Edgar Allan Poe, “What care I how time advances? I am drinking ale today.”