Homegrown Hops

It's hard to imagine that brewing your own beer could get any more rewarding than it already is, but trust me, it can! How could this be possible? Well, the answer lies in cultivating the ingredients that end up in your home brew. Now, I'm not suggesting that you go out and plant a bunch of barley and wheat, because honestly, most gardeners wouldn't even take on this challenge. What I do recommend though, is planting and growing your own hops. These perennial plants grow with relative ease and will help you emphasize the "home" in home brew. If you have a bit of extra outdoor space, there couldn't be a better time than now to learn how to cultivate your very own homegrown hops!

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Cascade hop flowers.
Cascade hop flowers.

Hop Plants -

Upon initial impression, you might be inclined to believe that Humulus lupulus is a vine. While hops are climbing plants, they are technically classified as a bine. These differ from vines in the sense that they climb using a helical pattern that effectively wraps around supports. To achieve vertical growth, hop shoots are covered with tiny downward facing bristles for gripping supporting surfaces. Once established on a trellis or other climbable surface, hop plants will grow continuously throughout the summer, sometimes having shoots that reach lengths in excess of 30 feet long! Nearing the end of summer, hop plants will begin to flower producing usable hop cones for brewing. Once the harvesting of the cones is completed, the foliage is cut back and the hop plants go into winter dormancy as an underground rhizome.

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Cascade hop plant growing up a trellis.
Cascade hop plant growing up a trellis.

Top Hop Varieites -

Variety
Type
Profile
Cascade
Flavor & Aroma
Flowery & Citrus
Willamette
Aromatic
Earthy & Slightly Fruity
Centennial
Aroma & Bittering
Like Cascade, but less citrusy.
Saaz
Noble Hop
Herbal with smooth bitterness.

Grow Hops At Home -

  • Choosing Where to Plant - Due to the fact that hops are perennial plants, you'll want to make sure that you choose an area in which will accommodate the growing shoots year after year. The ideal area will provide full sun, plenty of room for vertical growth and well draining fertile soil. For homegrown hops, utilizing a space that backs up to a tall fence or even the side of your home may be best. These areas will easily allow you to implement a trellis or twine structure for the hops to grow on.
  • Planting Hops - You'll only have to plant hops one time, but it's important that you get it right! About two months before the average last frost in your area, amend the selected garden space with plenty of high quality manure or compost. Let the amended soil settle until it's time to plant the hops (3-4 weeks before the average last frost). When planting, bury rhizomes 6-8 inches deep and water well. Pre-rooted hop plants should be planted nearer to the surface so that existing foliage is above the soil line. At this time, a trellis or twine structure should be set up.

Hop vines sprouting from the ground. As a perennial, hops will come back for years!
Hop vines sprouting from the ground. As a perennial, hops will come back for years!
  • Caring for Hops - As the hops begin to sprout shoots above the soil, you should gently wrap the strongest two or three around the structure they'll be growing on. Any shoot beyond the strongest two or three should be trimmed off at the soil line. By doing so, you'll ensure maximum productivity by eliminating any wasted energy in the form of excess shoots.
  • Water & Fertilizer - Once the strongest two or three shoots have established themselves on the growing structure, they will grow fast and pretty much care for themselves. Watering should be conducted once or twice a week. Since hops have deep root systems, it's better to water deeply a couple of times a week rather than light watering every day. As far as fertilizer, you may want to work in bone meal around the base of each plant at the time when the first hop flowers appear. This will provide a boost in phosphorus, keeping flowering at its maximum.

Cascade hop plant with tons of hop cones on the plant!
Cascade hop plant with tons of hop cones on the plant!

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  • Harvesting - The hops will not be ready all at once, so plan to harvest each plant several times. Hop cones are ready for harvest when they have a papery feel to them and will easily release lupin. If you squeeze the hops and they do not spring back quickly, there is still too much moisture in them and they should be left on the plant. Hops ready to be harvested will be slightly lighter in color and will leave a sticky aromatic residue on your hands. ***Hop plants can cause skin irritations due to their bristly stems, so gloves may be necessary for some folks.
  • Drying and Storage - As the hops are harvested, they should immediately be moved to a cool and dark area to begin the drying process. The best way for home gardeners to dry their hops is to spread them out on an elevated window screen or some other surface that promotes airflow. Over the next 3-7 days, the hop flowers need to be rotated in order to ensure even drying. Hops are thoroughly dry when they have lost about 70% of their initial weight and feel papery to the touch. Once dry, the hops can be used immediately for beer production or moved to the freezer for storage. To store, vacuum seal hops and place in the freezer. If you do not have a vacuum sealer, pack the hops into freezer bags and try to remove as much air as possible before freezing.

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Tips for Growing Hops -

Hops are relatively easy plants to grow, but following the tips below can greatly help out!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Immature hop flowers. Mature Hop flowersHarvested Cascade hops. Hops drying on a well ventilated metal screen.
Immature hop flowers.
Immature hop flowers.
Mature Hop flowers
Mature Hop flowers
Harvested Cascade hops.
Harvested Cascade hops.
Hops drying on a well ventilated metal screen.
Hops drying on a well ventilated metal screen.
  • Not Suitable for Containers - Hops will grow in containers, but just because they do doesn't mean that they'll be productive. The problem with containers (even very large 30+ gallon containers) is that they do not provide proper root space. Hop plants have massive root systems that extend deep into the soil. Containers restrict this downward movement, creating a thick mass of roots clumped at the bottom. The plants become root bound and stunted when this occurs.
  • Pre-Rooted over Rhizome - Both types are viable options, but when it comes down to production, pre-rooted hops have the upper hand. These female hop plants are sold with an established root system and foliage already growing. Not only do they grow quicker during the first season, they also have a greater chance of producing hops sooner than rhizomes. If you're in the hunt for pre-rooted hop plants, High Hops from Windsor, Colorado offers a great selection.
  • Patience is Key - Don't start growing hops and expect to harvest any cones the first season. This is the establishing year and there will be no hops. Most hop plants will produce flowers in their second year growing, with some producing their first cones during the third season.

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Cascade hops harvested from the 2013 season.
Cascade hops harvested from the 2013 season.

Although it seems like there's a lot to learn about growing hops, you'll quickly find out after planting that they're actually very easy to cultivate. Year after year these plants will return, offering greater yields than the season before! Producing upwards of 2.5 pounds of hop cones per plant, you'll have enough to make your own home brews, as well as supply your friends with these fresh homegrown beauties. Thanks for reading this guide on homegrown hops, and good luck to you this season!

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