One Family's History of Growing Hops
Hops come in an industry stable form, nicely pelletized, vacuum-sealed on nitrogen and include the alpha and beta acid levels right on the package. There are over 70 hop varieties in a climate-controlled freezer at Northern Brewer just waiting to be purchased.
So why grow your own hops? Because for starters, it is a darn cool plant. Hops will grow 6 to 12 inches a day, topping out at 16 to 20 feet by July 1st. It is also a beautiful and resilient plant once established. If you treat them well, a freezer full of freeze-dried hops will allow you to laugh in the face of variety shortages and the possibility that everybody will be making a Cascade or Centennial IPA this summer.
In my case, it is a salute to my heritage. When my family emigrated from England to Oneida, New York, resting in Sussex, Wisconsin in the mid-1800s, the first crop they grew was hops. It was important to me to get hops re-established on the same land my family homesteaded in 1840. The Sussex/Lisbon Historical Society archives include correspondence my ancestors wrote to relatives in Peasmarsh, Sussex County, England where the hop harvest and wholesale prices were discussed. A good year here was $13 per hundredweight versus $11.
Shortly after the Civil War, Weaver Bros. Hops Brokers and Dealers (upon hearing of a hop blight in Europe from relatives) bought all the hops futures they could get their hands on. They made enough money that some hop farmers were able to pay off all their debts in one season. However, this market boom was followed shortly by the inevitable glut when the price collapsed, and many moved on to dairy farming to supply milk, butter, and cheese for Milwaukee.
We did manage to salvage a little of my family’s history by recovering and replanting two hops plants found on the family patriarch’s property which produce an amazing wet hop beer every year.
Growing your own hops can have its challenges. Like any agricultural product, they are labor-intensive and subject to the whims of mother nature’s wind, rain, drought, storms and the ever-present pests (damn Japanese Beetles). But it is well worth the time and toil, as the beer you make is unique and truly your own.
How To Plant Hop Rhizomes
What to do Before Planting Hop Rhizomes
Northern Brewer sells hops in the form of a rhizome. Rhizomes are used versus seeds to guarantee you are only growing a female plant. Male hops do not form flavorful cones and will ruin your crop by producing seeds on your female plants rendering them unusable. Rhizomes are also a genetic copy of the parent plant ensuring the hops you ordered are the hops you grow. Pre-orders for hop rhizomes begin early in the new year, with delivery as soon as the farmers in Washington and Oregon can get into the fields to harvest. The hop rhizome resembles a twig. It does not look like much, but do not worry, it is in a dormant stage and just needs to “wake up.”
Once the potential for a heavy frost is past, locate a good place to grow them. Southern exposure with little shade is best, along with something for the vines to grow on. Amend the soil with some good compost. I work the soil down about a foot and build it back up to an inch from the surface. Plant the rhizome horizontally with tiny buds up and roots down (not as easy as the green side goes up). Cover with soil to ground level and mulch, mulch, mulch.
During the first year, hops like moist soil, but not wet feet so water slowly and make sure the water soaks in without puddling. This is a great time to use that old brew bucket that has acquired a funky smell. Drill a 1/8-inch hole in the bottom and use it to trickle water on the plant. Do not prune hops in the first year; let everything grow. Also, in this first year do not expect much of a crop, as your hops are now building a great root system for future growth.
What is a Hop Bine and What is a Hop Trellis
Hop vines are known as bines: which are vines that use tiny Velcro-like hooks on its main stem (rather than using the side shoots off the main stem) to attach itself to its support system.
Your support system for the bines could be a large jointed trellis that can be raised and lowered, placed on the south side of your house with southern exposure, over a porch, or a collar on a vertical post that can be raised and lowered with pulleys. Bottom anchors can be tent stakes, ground anchors, or even W clips. Be creative. It is a beautiful hearty plant that will offer shade and cover in the hottest part of the summer.
What to Expect from Your Hop Bines Year Over Year
In the first year of growing hops, expect growth of 8 to 10 feet. When the first bines reach 2 to 3 feet, train the bines up your support system in a clockwise direction as this is their natural progression to grow. For an interesting visual on how hops grow, reference time-lapse videos like this one on youtube. As the vines grow they are constantly spinning in a clockwise direction looking for the next place to grab on. They really are fascinating plants. The tip of the bine is very tender, so be careful not to break it off.
Build your trellis using a good stout twine. My preference is to use coir hop twine just like the pros. Coir twine is made from coconut fiber which is very strong and coarse giving the bines something to attach to. The first buds look like small burrs. These will mature into a flower and are ready for harvest in late August or September. (Harvest/storage of hops will be discussed in the third installment of this series.) After the first frost, prune the vines back, leaving 1 to 2 feet of the bine and put a nice layer of mulch over it for the winter.
The second year of growing hops, start pruning when you see early sprouts – they can just be plucked off. Around the 10th of May, allow a couple of sprouts per twine to grow. Keep plucking the other ones. When the vines reach a couple of feet, train them on your anchored twine. Use a well-balanced fertilizer and feed them per the instructions. In the second year, you should get some amazing growth for the balance of May and June. It is not uncommon for second-year bines to top out at 18 to 24 feet. This is why I like a support system that can be lowered to the ground for harvest.
In the third year of growing hops and beyond, the root ball or “crown” will become a mass of rhizomes. Unless you poison it, you won’t kill your hop bines. I control mine by cutting back any suckers or shoots that are in excess of a foot in diameter using a shovel. Treat your hops bines as you did during the second year, except now pluck the bottom three feet of foliage off the bines beginning in July. This allows better air circulation, inhibiting mold and mildew growth.
After a couple of years, you will be measuring your harvest in pounds wet instead of ounces.
How To Harvest Your Hops
Pest and Insecticides on Your Hop Plant
Now that your hops vines are near maturity, it is time to think about reaping the most out of your harvest. You'll also want to watch for pests such as spider mites, aphids, hop louse, and Japanese Beetles. As an agricultural product, pests are always a worry. Minor infestations can be removed by hand or knocked off with a strong spray from a hose. Be very careful with pesticides. The hop cone is a flower – what you spray on it will go into the brew kettle. That being said, if you need to use an insecticide, follow the label directions and discontinue use for the recommended period of time before harvest.
When is My Hop Cone Ready to be Picked
The bud of the hop should look like a small burr. Shortly after these appear, a cone will develop and the anticipation and excitement will follow. The biggest concern of hop growers at this time is when to harvest. Although experience is the best teacher, there are several signs to watch for as to when to harvest, which generally occurs in late August/September, depending on the hop variety and weather.
- Appearance – The tips of the cone petals may start to turn brown or tan – if the entire cone is brown, discard it. Inside the cone, there are lupulin glands where the petals attach to the central stem. Early on these will appear lime green. As the cone matures, the lupulin glands will turn a deep yellow. I refer to this as “road paint yellow”.
- Touch – The cones will start to dry on the bine. Pinch a cone – if it stays compressed, it is too moist and not mature. If it springs back close to its original shape, it is ready to pick.
- Sound – A dry cone will crackle when you pinch it, like crumbling paper.
- Smell – Immature cones will smell very vegetal (like celery). As the cones mature, they will take on the aromas we cherish.
- Weight – The cones themselves will start to dry out and become lighter.
Note: Do not harvest wet hops. My tip here is to harvest mid-day to the afternoon when any dew has evaporated and it has not rained.
You can also use a formula to know when to pick your hops.
How to Pick Hop Cones
I have read about people using a large ladder and handpicking individual cones selectively. Maybe I’m lazy or maybe I’ve fallen off too many ladders, but I opt for ease and comfort. With my trellis design, I drop the whole bine onto a clean tarp, drag it to my house, pour a home-brewed beer, turn on the radio and pick cones. I discard any cones that are too brown or discolored.
The picked hops are weighed and spread out on a single layer on racks. I use old window screens and replaced the metal screening with fiberglass screening to avoid rust or splintering and put them in the rafters of my garage.
Brewing With Your Hop Rhizomes
Now is the time to make a wet hop beer. I use 5 ounces wet to 1 ounce dry for my wet-hop beer. It may look like cabbage soup, but the flavor and aroma of a wet hop beer are amazing. A couple of good baseline beers to use for your wet-hopping are the Mighty Axe Zenia IPA or the Chinook IPA.
Monitor the hops by weight, you can find a brewing scale on Northern Brewer's website. I separate 5 ounces out on one of the screens. When this is down to 1 ounce, I package the dry hops in 1-ounce bags using a vacuum sealer and then freeze. For my beer recipes, I use 1.5 ounces of my hops versus 1 ounce of commercially packaged hops with very good results – some say to use a 2 to 1 ratio, but heck it’s your beer, and if your friends and family don’t like it, let them buy canned beer.
I used my hops for up to one year after harvest. Some have said not to use homegrown hops as a bittering addition. I say that unless you are making a competition beer and are trying for strict style replication, it’s your beer, so be creative, have fun, and make it your own.
Thanks for letting me share my love and passion for this hoppy hobby.
For more information, check out Northern Brewer’s article on How To Grow Hops.
- Robb Howard
Read More about Growing Hops:
How to Grow Hops - Our step-by-step guide
Growing Hops - Diary of first-time hop grower
Harvesting Hops - A guide on what to do during harvest
How to Harvest Your Hops - Scientifically determining when to pick hops
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