Hops, those pinecone-like plants that give beer the magical essence that makes most beer, well, beer. It's that sharp, juicy, sometimes floral, and sometimes citrus nuance that brewmasters love to play up and tone down, all depending on style. You may know the ingredient mostly from IPA, a type of brew that tends to be hop-forward and sometimes has a hops-right-in-your-face flavor.
If you're on the quest to brew your own beer at home, why not take it a step further and start harvesting your own hops. This plant isn't too hard to grow, and since it's a bine (not a vine, though close) and will climb just about anything, you can train it to grow over a fence, across a trellis, or up the side of your house. All you need is a pile of rhizomes, water, soil, and sun.
What Exactly Are Hops
Sure, you probably have an inkling of what a hop is, based on nights drinking beer and that book or two on home brewing you've read, but what is this beautiful, bright green cone really about? And how does it work?
Simply put, a hop is a flower that blooms on humulus lupulus, the hop plant, which is a member of the hemp family. If you know the funky, herbal scent of marijuana, you may notice a similarity to the smell and flavor of hops, though the flower tends to be much more bitter, and we've never heard of anyone smoking them.
They do, however, make wonderful beer thanks to the lupine glands hidden under the leaves. But it's not all the hop plants that get the honor. Only the female of the species flower, making the buds that brewmasters covet. Harvest these cones and use them fresh, dried, or pulverized into pellets, though most home brewers take their own hops and use them straight from the bine and put them into a brew kettle.
Where To Plant Hops
The first step to planting hops is to figure out where to put them. This plant likes to grow up and loves the sun, though you don't want it in direct sunlight all day or the rays can scorch the tender green cones. South-facing walls or fences are handy, or a trellis can be great to both shade the plant and allow the sun to come through. Once you figure out the location, the next step is preparing the soil.
How To Plant Hops
Okay, so while dirt may seem like dirt, there are different soils that some plants really thrive in. In the case of hops, you need airy, well-draining soil that contains a pH balance between 6.0 and 7.5.
Fun fact: Sand can help thick dirt become lighter. To check the pH balance, buy a kit online or from your local gardening shop. Another good method is using compost and/or mycorrhizal inoculum, a mixture of fungi and plant roots that help get new roots growing.
It's imperative that you get your hop rhizomes (a long root with small shoots coming from them much like a sprouted potato) from a valued source and plant them two inches below the surface of your garden so the shoots point upward. You can also use the whole hop flower, aiming the crown of the bud toward the sky when planting.
If cultivating multiple varieties, make sure the rhizomes are about three feet away from each other to avoid root mixing and contamination.
When To Plant Hops
The time of year that it's best to plant hops varies depending on where you are. For example, if you live in Colorado you will want to sow in April. But if you're in California, hops do best planted in February.
If you aren't sure when is a good time to plant, ask your local experts at the garden shop or a brewer in town who is known for using fresh hops. This is also a good strategy when deciding what varietal of hops to plant since there are over 120. In Colorado, where it's dry, the Chinook type does well. However, in California, where the sun doesn't burn as hot, but there are more temperate days, you may want to go for Cascade hops.
Once the Hops Are in the Ground
The new plantings will need a lot of water, but this varies based on how dry your climate is and the rainfall. Many farmers suggest installing a drip irrigation system to avoid under or over-watering. Once shoots pop up, add more fertilizer around the green and water. You won't need to fertilize again until the three-week mark, then again in mid-summer. The bine should be bright and healthy-looking with a sheen and penchant for climbing.
The first year don't expect a boisterous harvest, the plant, after all, is literally laying down roots. Once they start growing, a healthy hop plant can live for 25 to 50 years.
After the three year mark, you will need to trim the roots, otherwise, rhizomes will start propagating and steal the precious nutrients from your workhorse plant, which means fewer hop flowers and possible death to the green queen.
How To Harvest Hops
Now that your hop bine has matured, it's ready to really get harvesting. This most likely will happen in the second year. Keep in mind that more and more cones will start popping out as time goes on. Many harvests happen in mid-August and September, but again, check with local growers to find out the best times to pick your buds. Don't pluck them early, as the hops need time to develop alpha acids, that component that gives them the magic to make beer so tasty.
To check if the hops are ready for picking, look for slightly dried tips, similar to tissue paper. If you observe this quality, gently squeeze the bud and see if it springs back. If so, pluck one and rub it between your fingers to release the aroma. It should smell like a combination of fresh-cut grass and raw onions. It's safe to say the more aromatic the plant is, the riper it is too, up to a point. If it smells rotten and the lupine glands have turned orange, it's too late for that harvest, the buds have gone rancid.
Finally, roll the cone between your fingers and next to your ear to see if it makes a mellow cricket sound. If so, you're good to pick the rest. Avoid breaking the bine the first couple of years until after they wither, that way the nutrients from the plant go back into the roots for next year's harvest.
Finishing up the Harvest
Now that you have a cache of aromatic hops it's time to process them. If you are making a fresh-hopped beer, also called wet-hopped, throw those buds right into the brew kettle. Otherwise, you will need to dry them, a tricky process due to moisture content and mold. This can all be contained if you dry the hops in a dehydrator on the lowest setting or in the oven at about 140 F. Do the latter in 20-minute increments, checking that you don't completely zap them.
You can tell the hops are properly dried when the stem proves brittle enough to snap off. Once the hops are totally dry, package them in an airtight container or vacuum-sealed bag, and freeze until ready to use.
After the harvest is done, trim up your vines so they will be ready for next year's haul!