Have you ever thought about growing your own hops? Do you think it's difficult or time consuming? We were a little bit skeptical at first but it's proving to be a fairly easy and a worthwhile endeavor. I am going to stress that we don’t fertilize or mess with our hops in any way. We are pretty loose about letting them kind of do their own thing. We check them periodically throughout the growing season to make sure there are no disasters waiting to happen and that’s about it. I’m going to include some general background information below, but I am in no way an expert on growing hops. This is just how we go about the process of growing, picking and drying and it works for us. We’ve done a lot of research on them and chosen some best practices to put into use over the years.
Adam and I are celebrating our third hop harvest this year. We grow two varieties of hops – Cascade and Zeus. Cascade did much better than Zeus this year. They both started growing early this year for our area, in March, but Zeus was stricken with some sort of blight and died off almost entirely pretty early. It ended up coming back pretty nicely though. We should still be able to get a nice sized harvest in a couple weeks. We harvested and dried most of the Cascade hops last week. The Cascade plant produced 10 pounds of wet hops so far which is crazy for just one plant! There are more to harvest as well as signs of a pretty hefty bumper crop are coming in. I’m not sure how we’re going to store them all!
Let’s start with the basics. Well, what is a hop? A hop is the female part of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. The part we use in beer is a flower that’s shaped like little green cone. The hops plant is a member of the Cannabaceae family, which also includes hemp, marijuana and hackberries. It is herbaceous perennial plant, meaning it sprouts in the spring and dies down in the winter and lives for longer than two years. Hops are grown from a rhizome, not a seed, which is like a woody piece of stem you plant underground that grows roots and shoots from its nubs. Have you ever seen a turmeric root at the grocery store? That’s a rhizome too! Plant the rhizome when the ground is no longer frozen and can be easily worked. Hop rhizomes are hearty and can withstand a frost but don’t try to dig or plant in frozen ground. When planting a hop rhizome, dig a little trench for it about 8-12 inches deep, and plant it horizontally with most of the nubs pointing upward. If any of the nubs have shoots already, point those upward as well. While a hop plant looks like a giant vine, the term is technically “bine” as it uses itself for a support system. It’ll loop around itself and create a great thick tangle of bines as it grows larger and higher. It’s pretty amazing to watch! Hops grow very quickly, as much as 2 inches per day. Hop plants can grow up to 30 feet high. Chances are that during the first year of growth, the harvest will be rather small as the plants will be establishing roots first. It is typical to see plants 10-12 feet high that first year, and twice that height the next year after the root bed is well established. Commercial trellises of all types are available or feel free to construct a custom system for your hops.
Different types of hops have different ideal harvesting times and those harvest times will also depend on what climate you live in. A rule of thumb to follow is: it’s ready when it’s ready. A hop that is ready to go will be fragrant, papery to the touch and slightly sticky with lupulin, the resiny substance that is so prized in hops. Its bright yellow and you can’t miss it on the hop flowers. Once you see it on there in larger amounts, the aroma changes from “green” to “whoa that’s hops!” and you feel that the flowers are a bit drier and lighter than before, it’s time to pick them.
So what now? You’ve got this huge plant with thousands of flowers. How do you get them all down!? We just cut the bines down and gently pull each flower off by hand. Simple as that. Others recommend that you clip each flower off with shears. Either way. We’ve never had a particular issue with gently pulling the flowers off the stem. I can’t imagine having more than four or five plants to harvest. It took us all day to harvest and begin drying about three quarters of what we had on the Cascade plant. It’s quite a bit of work but it’s not intensive. It’s just a little tedious!
Once you’ve got them off the bines, you have a decision to make. You’ve either pre-planned like Adam did and combined harvest day with a brew day and you’re ready to add wet hops to your boil, or you’re going to need to dry the hops. There are a number of methods described online on how to dry your hops at home. However, if you’re going to do this over several years and you don’t want to mess with a room full of fans and screens, etc. I would recommend that you invest in a handy food dehydrator. We have a 10 shelf food dehydrator that was about $150 on eBay. It’s AWESOME. It’s great for hops but also can be used for all sorts of dried food. I love dried fruit, especially pineapple, so I use it pretty often. Also, homemade jerky, anyone!?
In any case, once you’ve got your hops off the bines, go ahead and dry them by your chosen method. Leave them whole and place them on your screens or trays. It takes about 24 hours in the food dehydrator on a low setting to completely dry out the hops.
You’ll see quite a difference in the hop flowers once they are dry. The petals will open and flare out and the moisture should be completely gone from the cones. They will be very light and papery and are extremely delicate at this phase so handle them gently. They also have a distinctive sound to them. You can’t mistake a dry hop if you are familiar with how it feels and sounds. Just grab a couple and give them a little squeeze test.
The hops are best stored packed tightly into thick plastic freezer bags so there is as little air as possible in there and sealed tightly. Vacuum sealers work great for this! The bags are weighed, labeled with the date and type of hop, and in the freezer all the bags go. The hops are good for at least a year for brewing use.
I hope that this little piece has showed you that you can grow hops easily at home. Even if you’re not a home brewer yet, maybe you have friends that are or your favorite local breweries can use them. One of our only neighborhood breweries, Lake Effect Brewing Company, puts a call out every year for local hops. They produce a fresh hopped pale ale called 45th Ward with hops from growers on the Northwest side of Chicago. We’ll be contributing some of our hops this year to this communal brew.
So, get growing and get brewing!