hops

Hoperation Rhizome

The time has come, homebrewing legends.

After a summer of sunny days, you should now be staring at an overgrowth of hop bines (yes BINE, click for definition) in the back yard and hopefully you’re elbows deep in hops that explode with aroma that will soon be captured in a harvest ale for the ages!  The first year doesn’t always yield much of a harvest, but next year will be even better.  I’m pretty stoked as well, I know!   Just keep calm, don’t worry, have a homebrew. Hoperation Rhizome is in its final stages at Northern Brewer, so if you have a minute to spare from being so awesome, we wanted to share some tips on hoptimizing harvest time!

Those first buds formed and the first reaction is to bust out the kettle and start throwing hops recklessly at a freshly made wort.  It’s been about 6 months since preorders started, be sure you wait until the cones are ready.  I prefer to focus on how dry and how aromatic the cones become.  The cones all of a sudden start to fan out and bulge under all those productive lupulin glands, and when you bend/break a cone you should see what looks like pollen.  That’s that sweet lupulin!

The edges can start to dry so when you see the cones fan out, you know harvest time is near.  The cones should also have a nice bounce when you squeeze them, and your fingers should be sticky after touching one.  Keep them well watered, to prevent browning, until the aromas just explode.  You want to take a cone, break it into a few pieces, then roll the cone back and forth between your two hands.  Cup your hands to your nose – now give them a good sniff.  Yeah, that’s nice, I know.  I like to hold off as long as I dare, if you start to see a few cones browning, don’t panic, just call your brew buddy, your neighbor, maybe a willing significant other, and get to harvesting.

Pro Tip: I know it’s hot, but do yourself a favor and wear long sleeves, a hat, and preferably gloves.  Microscopic barbs designed for climbing any possible surface will itch like the dickens after prolonged contact with your skin.  The bines want all the hops for themselves so they will try and bite when you pick them all at once.

You’ve got two options for harvesting that work well: pick the hops off the bine or pick the bine off the trellis and pick the cones later. The best way is to pick the hops right off the bine.  Not all the cones may come to maturity at the same time and we might as well just grab the best cones, at the right time, and let the others come to maturity later on. Then you could dry hop the hopbursted IPA you made on harvest day with the next harvest.  Nothing satisfies like grabbing a choice hop cone right off the bine and sinking a sweet fade-away into the kettle to beat the buzzer.

Picking the hops off the bine also gives you the benefit of leaving the actual bine behind.  Just pull it down off the trellis and if the bine doesn’t break, the nutrients not used will be reabsorbed into the roots.

Hop farms will cut the bines and remove them off their supports and hang the whole bine to dry.  You just hang them from a line in a dry place protected from the elements for about 24-48 hours.  Put a fan on, or even better a dehumidifier, and they dry pretty quickly this way.  Not likely the best option for most homebrewers, who have a handful of plants and harvest a couple pounds at most, so most will probably opt for laying the cones out to dry.

You’ll want to spread the cones out on a screen over a fan.  Its pretty easy to get extra window screening and some 2x4s and screw it all together to make a square drying box.  Place the rack on top of a box fan that is on its side and the cones dry up as fast as we can manage for cheap.  A great alternative is a food dehydrator, you can get a decent one for about $50-90 that will handle the volumes we’re looking at and this is the quickest and driest your hops will get without damaging their flavor and aroma.  An oven on it’s lowest heat setting would work too but the difference between dry enough and baked is a fine line and we want all those aromas in our beer, not in the pizza you bake later.  On second thought, that sounds good too.

Once dry, we’ll want to use them all right away.  Just kidding, we can store some and brew later, if you can contain your excitement.  The best option is a vacuum sealer and you can get them for about $40 and $10 for the bags.  This will keep oxygen out and that is the number one enemy.  Each different variety degrades at its own pace, but get all the air out of the plastic bags and store them in the freezer.  Light and heat and oxygen will try to ruin future batches, but they should keep for at least 6 months to a year.  But fresher is better so you better get busy.

When using fresh hops, we recommend trying 4 ounces for every ounce of dry you would normally use.  Once dried all the way, they can be used normally, but without a couple test batches we won’t have a reliable idea of the bittering power of our homegrown hops.  This varies more than you might expect, so I save them for late boil additions, dry hops, randalizing, first wort hopping, throw them right in the mash and more.  It’s not the bitterness we want out of these epicly awesome hops, its the fresh flavors and aromas!

If you find yourself with too many hops all at once, relax, there’s so many things you can do with them.  Try your hand at cider and add some as a dry hop.  Pack some cones into a mason jar filled with 40-50% ABV vodka.  You’ve just made a tincture, where the alcohol acts as a solvent extracting the oils and resins from the hops and is perfect for cooking, or put a dab on your pillow to help you sleep, add a drop in place of bitters in a cocktail recipe, or use it in any number of other crafts or hobbies you may have.  Hopped beard oils?  That’s on our list this year.

If you have a question, or just want to talk “Hop Shop”, give us a call.  Our brewmasters are online 7 days a week to answer any questions or concerns you might have.  You can reach us at brewmaster@northernbrewer.com or if you just need to hear another Brewer’s voice, give us a call at 800-681-2739.