Hops are a crucial element in brewing beer. Everyone knows about hops because of beer and this is the plant that makes beer special and unique.
Almost without fail, once a beer lover starts brewing their own beer, they want to know about growing their own hops. It is really not a difficult plant to grow, cultivate, and harvest, particularly if you are already good in the garden.
What Are Hops?
The hop plant is a long, fast-growing vine. It dies back or is harvested at the root in late autumn and regrows to 25 feet or more the following summer. The part of the plant that interests brewers and beer lovers is the cone, the flower from the female hop plant.
A hop plant is either male or female. That is easy for us humans to understand, but apparently, it is less common in the plant world. Both male and female hop plants produce cones, but the male cones are of no importance in brewing beer, or in any other application. So much so that male hops are virtually eradicated in commercial hop nurseries. Talk about gender discrimination!
How to Grow Hops
Hops are most commonly propagated from rhizomes cut from the roots of healthy, older female plants. This produces clones that ensure that the resulting plants are also female. Do not purchase hop seeds if you intend to harvest them for beer.
There are many varieties of hops available and some are better for brewing beer than others. This is noticeable in commercial beers and many brands will list the hops used in each beer on their website. Many beers use a blend of different hops and homebrewers can follow suit by planting a few varieties.
This plant does require patience, however. It is not until the second year after planting that the plant will be mature enough to produce the flowers needed for beer.
Hops are vines so the plants will need a trellis to grow on. They can be vigorous in their growth and should be given plenty of space to spread and fully mature.
Many gardeners will choose to let hops grow over an entire gazebo which allows the plant to grow as large and healthy as weather and soil conditions permit. It is also a stunning focal point for a garden.
The hop vine produces small blooms that mature into strobiles, those familiar green cones that we often see illustrated on beer labels. These mature in early autumn when they are ready to be harvested.
Harvesting is done by cutting the entire vine at the root (remember that it will grow back in full next summer). The cones are then picked from the vine and dried in a kiln. Once dry, they are then pressed and packaged.
Even dried, hops' greatest enemy is time. Under the best conditions—dry and cool—hops cannot be kept longer than just a couple of years. If you decide to grow your own but have not used all of last year's crop for beer, it would be best to discard them once you are sure of a successful harvest.