How to grow your own hops at home!
Why grow your own hops?
In 1992, worldwide hops acreage hit an all-time high of 236,067 acres, resulting in an excess of hops on the market and creating low hops prices. For a number of years, it cost more to grow hops than they could be sold for, and many farmers took a loss. To continue making money, hops farmers began converting their land to more profitable crops or selling it to developers. The result was a decrease in worldwide hops acreage: 113,417 acres in 2006 (1). The shortage doesn't cause much concern for large commercial breweries, like Anheuser-Busch, who hold long-term contracts with hops growers and generally get first dibs on a season's crop. Smaller craft breweries and brewpubs will feel much of the strain, as many of them do not have contracts and may have to pay through the nose for hops, if they can get them at all. Some small breweries may not survive the shortage. What does this mean for humble homebrewers, who are at the bottom of the supply chain? The hops shortage means drastically higher prices and much less stock at their favorite brewers' supply shop. In fact, many popular varieties are becoming scarce and some can't be found at all. One thing homebrewers can do during this crisis is to get to the brewers' supply shop early, bring a lot of money, and keep what hops they can find in their freezer until they are ready to be used. The more economical solution, which will also free up some of the commercially available hops for our beloved craft and microbreweries, is to simply grow your own hops.
What is a hop, anyway?
Blessed are we, who live in Oregon, because we have been bestowed with an ideal climate for growing hops! The hops plant, or Humulus Lupulus, is an extremely hardy perennial plant, which produces annual vines from a permanent rootstock, or crown. In addition to true roots and aerial vines, the crown also produces underground stems, called rhizomes, which are used to propagate new hops plants. The part of the plant used in brewing is the hop cone, which is formed by a mature female flower. The mature hop cones are 1 to 3 inches long, yellowish green, and papery to the touch. They are normally harvested in August and September, dried, and then used for brewing, though they can be used fresh. Under good conditions, hops are a productive vine and will be a delight to grow and utilize. Vigorous varieties will produce as much as 2 lbs. of dried flowers per plant.
What type should I choose?
There are over 90 different varieties of hops! In brewing, some are used for bittering the beer, some are used for adding aroma, and some are used for adding flavor. A good way to decide what kind of hops to grow in your garden, look at the types of beer you enjoy the most. Find a recipe for your favorite beer and either grow the type of hops used in the recipe or grow a variety that closely matches. If you want to grow more than one variety in your garden, just be sure to plant different types at least five feet apart to keep them from becoming tangled up together and creating a nightmare at harvest time. Identical varieties can be planted as close as three feet apart.
Another thing to keep in mind when choosing hops for your garden is that many varieties are named based on where they were originally grown. For instance, Hallertau Hallertauer Mittelfrüher hops and Tettnang Tettnanger hops are both German hops, and will be more productive when grown in Germany. The Pacific Northwest does have its own varieties of hops, though! Some favorites include Mount Hood, Cascade, Chinook, Willamette, and Mt. Rainier. These hops, and others developed in the Pacific Northwest, will be hardier in our climate, have more productive vines, and be more resistant to native pests. New varieties of hops are being developed every year.
What do hops need to grow?
Vines can grow up to 25 feet in a single season! In a home garden, the main concerns are to get the vines off the ground and, if possible, keep the different varieties from getting jumbled up with one another. The vines are easiest to grow and deal with if they are trained onto strong twine, which is supported by a trellis. Hops don't have to be grown on a 25-foot tall trellis. Some of the less fruitful varieties will yield more if they are limited to 10 to 15 feet, but just about anything over 6 feet will work. Wherever the hops are planted, a minimum of 120 frost-free days are needed for hop vines to produce flowers. The plants prefer loamy and well-drained soil with a pH of 6.5-8.0, and the soil needs fertilizers rich in potassium, phosphates, and nitrogen. Home growers can use manure, compost and commercial fertilizer for this purpose.
Here's a list of things you need to start your hops garden (prices are approximate):
Hops rhizomes - $5.00 - $10.00 each at Freshops.com
Milorganite 36lb organic nitrogen fertilizer - $12.00 at Lowes.com
For the trellis:
Hop twine (10 strings) - $6.00 at Freshops.com
36 feet PVC pipe - $20.00-$30.00 at Lowes.com
2 PVC tees - $3.00 at Lowes.com
40lb bag Quikcrete - $4.00 at Lowes.com
Plans for a hops trellis are easy to find at the library or on the internet.
Here's the design I based the prices on (3):
How much does it cost?
The startup costs for a hops garden with three plants comes to about $85.00, not including labor and water. However, you can easily cut the cost by securing the hop twine to a gutter, railing or tree, if they are available. By not using a PVC trellis, your initial costs are decreased to $48.00.
The expenses incurred while starting a hops garden may seem excessive, but your hops will pay for themselves sooner than it seems. At F.H. Steinbart's, a Portland Brewers' supply shop, a 2 oz. package of dried hops costs around $5.00. Assuming that each of three hop vines will produce one and a half pounds of dried cones, the same amount of packaged hops at F.H. Steinbart's would cost about $180.00! Remember, also, that hops is a perennial plant, and will come back every year, and your only annual expenses will be more hop twine and fertilizer, about $18.00.
All monetary concerns aside, homegrown hops are a source of pride for the grower, on the vine and in the bottle! Many homebrewers enjoy fresh hops festivals all over the country, where beer made with freshly harvested hops is showcased. Fresh, or un-dried, hops can be hard to come by for a homebrewer who wants to recreate something they might have enjoyed at a fresh hops festival, unless the brewer knows someone who grow hops or grows them at home. After the harvest, by burying healthy bottom vines in a shallow trench and marking their location, new rhizomes can be propagated. In the spring, dig them up and cut them into pieces about 4 inches long, making sure each new cutting has an eye or bud. Then the new rhizomes can be planted, expanding your garden, your capability for brewing, and your savings! Beautiful hop vines can also be used to create shade in the summer, and they smell wonderful! Hop cones can be used for medicinal purposes, as an herbal remedy for anxiety, restlessness, and sleeplessness. A pillow filled with hops or hops tea are popular folk remedies for insomnia.
Relatively inexpensive, easy to grow, easy to use, and easy on the eyes, there are few reasons not to grow your own hops. The most common reasons people have to not grow their own are a lack of garden space, vertical space limitations, or the "Black Thumb" excuse, which, in this case is no excuse at all, because if you give them room, hops will grow like weeds! Whether your reason for growing your own hops is to save money on homebrewing supplies, to have a beautiful garden, or because you need some help catching forty winks, a home garden full of the breathtaking Humulus Lupulus plant is a joy for all, brewer and non-brewer alike!