Avid home brewers know that more control over the final product comes out of the effort in preparing the ingredients. We know that making your own yeast starter is an important component in controlling the final flavor profile of your home brew.
Another step to take is learning how to grow your own hops. While this effort is certainly time consuming, it allows the homebrewer to take even more control over the flavors and final taste of the beer.
Hops are flowers that are grown and cultivated to provide bitter, flavor and more structure in beer. Hops affect the aroma, flavor, and the bitterness in beer.
So naturally, the many different hop varieties make for different flavors in your beer.
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Why Grow Your Own Hops?
Sure, you can get a variety of hops at your local brew store and order an even wider variety through the internet from anywhere in the world. But growing your own hops adds that extra level of a personal touch to your beer. Although it takes little energy on your part, it does take many months to complete.
Plus, hops are perennial plants which mean that if you plant them in the right place, and care for them correctly, they will return year after year.
When to Start
Depending on where you are in the country, you want to plant your hops after the final freeze of the year. This could be as late as April if you are in a colder climate, or as early as December or January in warmer areas.
They also grow best in latitudes between 34 and 50, or U.S. Hardiness Zones 5 through 7, so unless you are in one of the states on our southern border, you should have a great climate for growing hops.
Prior to planting you need to purchase rhizomes. Hop rhizomes are small roots which are cut from the main root of a mature female hop plant. The little cones or flowers produced by the plant are the hops you will use to make your home brew.
Where To Plant Hops
Hops thrive best with a lot of sunlight. Find a spot with southern exposure where direct sunlight shines at least six to eight hours a day. Make sure that the soil is not clumped together, and also your location has decent drainage. Your soil should have a PH level between 6.0 and 7.5.
When your hops grow, they will need to latch onto something to continue their growth. Hop vines (or bines) grow quickly and will reach a maximum height of 15-25 feet! A trellis, twine or wire fence, or other lattice structure will aid in growth, so pick an area that can support this structure if you don’t have one in place already.
Hop Planting and Care
You should plant two of the same rhizome varieties near each other, roughly three feet apart. Remember, these suckers are going to be BIG. Their roots expand widely, so it is important that if you are growing different varieties or cultivars of rhizomes, you will want to space them at least six feet apart.
Plant the rhizomes vertically with the buds on top and the roots down, and they should be planted between four and eight inches in the ground. Frequent short waterings are the best option for growth, but you do not want your seeds or plants to be in sitting water. If you live in warmer, drier climates you may need to water your plants daily to keep them healthy.
You can certainly use fertilizer, just make sure you pick one that is rich in nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. Fertilizer can be applied prior to planting, then again in May and July.
The first shoots should break through the soil roughly two to four weeks after planting. From then on things happen quickly; some vines can grow up to 12 inches in one day!
You will want to support the better vines by training them to climb the trellis. This can be done by tying them around the trellis, although they will quickly learn to stick to the trellis on their own. You will want to support the stronger vines, so trim any weaker ones so the nutrients and water support your stronger vines.
Harvesting and Drying the Hops
Your cones should be ready to harvest by late August or early September, depending on where your crops are growing. As mentioned earlier, they will be very tall at this point, anywhere from 10 to 20 feet high. Here are the clues to determine that your hops are ready to harvest:
- The cones become dry and papery to the touch
- The cones lighten in color
- A strong hop aromatic odor is detectable
- Yellow powder on your fingers
The yellow powder, also known as lupelin, is the ultimate tip off that your hops are ready for harvesting. Every day or so pick a cone you think is ripe. When you open it, if there is yellow lupelin powder inside, then you are ready to harvest.
Don’t be discouraged if your harvest is small. Hops generally have a small harvest their first year and reach their peak in later years.
Then, lower the vine so it lays flat on the ground. If it is attached to the trellis you can keep it upright, but you may need a ladder to get all your hops. Pick each hop off and bring them inside, placing them somewhere warm, but away from the sunlight until they are dry. Garages tend to be a great place. Do not leave them out for more than 24 hours.
If you have dogs, know that hops can be dangerous or even deadly if ingested, so keep your furry friends away from your stash.
If you want to use your hops right away, no need to dry them out. Fresh hops are amazing for beer, just like freshly picked produce is generally great for eating. But if you are not planning on brewing a batch anytime soon, read on.
How to Store Hops
Storing hops is an easy two-step process.
1. Vacuum Seal. You need to store them without any risk of oxidation, which will ruin your harvest. Use a good vacuum sealer to make sure they are protected from oxygen.
2. Freeze. Putting them in the freezer will keep them fresh for up to a year. That means they should last until your next harvest!
You will want to cut the vines down to a foot off the ground. You could initially cut them down to three feet off the ground for esthetic purposes, but you will need to cut them down to one foot by the first winter frost.
The next spring, you will need to trim the roots back. Take a spade and cut the roots to about a foot around the rhizome. Otherwise, your hops could grow even larger and take over your entire garden. Add more fertilizer along with fresh mulch. If you need a new trellis, now is the time.
Diseases and Pests
Like any crop, your hops could be infiltrated by diseases or pests that could turn a healthy vine into a decaying weed in a matter of weeks.
Here are the biggest threats to your healthy hops, and how to handle them if they should unfortunately present themselves.
Symptoms – The leaves are the warning indicator. If they curl and become brittle or turn dark underneath you might have downy mildew. It starts at the bottom and works its way up, so carefully check your lower leaves first.
Cure – This is a definite hop killer, but is preventable. It is usually the result of too much moisture in the soil or on the plants. This can be caused by frequent rain or too much overhead watering (as opposed to drip irrigation).
Keep control of the water as best as you can, make sure there is healthy runoff (instead of stagnant pools of water) and keep the area free of weeds. Also, prune your leaves back on the bottom three feet. You can use a fungicide spray such as Ridomal.
Symptoms – Swollen bine, or leaves curling upward, are a clear sign.
Cure – This is also caused by excessive moisture. Like with Downy Mildew, aggressive pruning and fungicides might help, but are no guarantee.
Symptoms – These insects, usually present in wet and cool weather, are white and cover the underside of your leaves with a sticky goo. This eventually destroys the leaves.
Cure – Ladybugs are a natural predator of aphids. Of course, it is hard to harness ladybugs who will, of course, fly away, but if you purchase ladybugs you can keep them cool in the fridge and release them overnight or very early in the morning.
You can also destroy aphids with insecticidal soaps which is far cheaper than purchasing ladybugs, but will take more time as you need to do the work on each affected area.
Red Spider Mites
Symptoms – These mites, usually found in hot and dry climates, leave brown or rust-colored spots on the upper part of leaves. They also make thin white webs on the underside of leaves.
Cure – Immediately remove infected leaves to prevent spreading. Garden sprays and natural soaps will do the job. However, these products should not be used within two weeks of harvest as they will still be detectable in the cones.
Frequently Asked Questions
We do not recommend you grow your hops indoors. Remember, your vines can grow up to 20 feet tall! However, if you have that much space near a window and want to give it a try, it is possible.
You can find out more information here, just keep in mind you will need good drainage from your potting container and you will need to actively prune.
No. It’s the alcohol in the beer that is giving you a buzz, not the hops. Now although the cannabis plant and the hops plant are distant relatives, hops does not contain the THC like it does with marijuana. So, smoking hops is not recommended and won’t get you high.
Depending on the type and variety of the hop plant and the environment it is growing in, you could get anywhere from 1/2 pound to 3-pounds or more. Sometimes it takes a few years to get the best harvest, so it is not uncommon to have a better harvest on the 2nd and 3rd years.
YES THEY ARE VERY DANGEROUS TO DOGS! It doesn’t matter if they are home grown or commercially produced, all hops are very toxic to dogs. That is why you should never share a beer with your furry friend, unless it is one of these specially made dog beers.
There are a few reasons why hops are one of the main ingredients in beer. Hops provide aroma and flavor in beer, and they are responsible for the bitterness (IBUs) of the beer. They also have been know to be used as a way to keep beer fresh.
Growing and cultivating your own hops is an excellent way to add more control to your brew day and the virtually unlimited brewing recipes you can make using all the different varieties of hops.
If you live in the proper climate and have the space, hops are relatively easy to grow. And you can add the title “gardener” along with “brewer” on your resume!