Good hops aren’t hard to find. Chances are your local homebrew store carries at least a dozen varieties, probably many more. And even if it doesn’t (or if you don’t have a local homebrew store), Internet commerce offers the promise of hops delivered right to your door in as few business days as you’re willing to pay for. But with a little planning and some TLC, you can also grow your own.
Growing your own hops is a rewarding and surprisingly easy way to make your brew uniquely yours. A full treatise on planting a hops garden can easily occupy several volumes, but to get started, you need to master only seven simple steps.
1. Buy your rhizomes in March or April.
Think ahead. What hops do you want to grow? Some retailers offer presales as early as January, but preordering usually isn’t necessary unless you’re after a particularly in-demand variety (keep in mind, though, that many of today’s most popular cultivars—think Amarillo, Citra, Mosaic, and Simcoe—are patented, proprietary, and not for sale). In many cases, you can simply put your name on a list at your local store, and someone will call when the rhizomes arrive. Once you receive your baby hops, keep them in the refrigerator until it’s time to plant.
2. Plant the rhizomes once the ground has thawed and your area has safely passed beyond the specter of winter.
You can start scoping out possible sites for your hops now. If you’re still enjoying a mild fall, you can even begin some ground preparation. Choose a south-facing location that receives plenty of daytime sunlight, ideally one that is slightly elevated and drains well.
Come spring, place rhizomes of the same variety about 3 feet (1 meter) apart and keep different cultivars at least 6 feet (2 meters) from one another. Bury each rhizome about 6–12 inches (15–30 cm) deep, oriented horizontally.
3. Nurture your growing plants with frequent light waterings.
Your goal is to provide enough water to help the plant establish its roots, but not so much that the rhizomes start to rot. Once the first shoots break the surface of the soil (2–4 weeks after planting), things will start moving quickly—it’s not uncommon for plants to grow up to a foot (30 cm) per day at the height of summer!
4. Support the hops bines as they grow.
Hops prefer to grow vertically. Effective support methods range from simple lengths of sturdy twine to sophisticated trellis systems. Just make sure that whatever you choose is strong enough to hold a full-grown, heavy plant: Commercial hops farms feature trellises as tall as 20 feet (6 meters).
Find more about brewing with fresh hops, brewers who are using foraged ingredients, and pumpkin beers in Issue 8 (August/September 2015) of _Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®. _Order your back issue today.
5. Harvest your homegrown hops when they are ready.
By late August or early September, the cones will lighten in color and begin to dry and feel papery. These visual and tactile clues are your indication that it’s time to harvest, though a more scientific approach is to conduct a dry matter test (see “Harvesting Your Homegrown Hops”). Once you’ve made the decision to harvest, simply snip the top of the twine that the plant has climbed and lay the bine flat on the ground (if your hops grow on a trellis, you can leave the bines in place as you harvest the cones). Pick the cones from the bine and either use them straight away (within 24 hours) in a wet-hopped beer or dry them for future use. Leave the bines attached to the plant until the first frost, then cut the plants about a foot (30 cm) above the ground and discard the bines in preparation for winter.
6. Dry your hops immediately if you plan to save them for later.
A food dehydrator can do the job, but many home growers build makeshift racks to handle the harvest. You can alternate window screens, air filters, or chicken wire with single layers of hops and blow air over the rig with a box fan. You’re aiming for brittle, papery-feeling hops cones with stems that snap when bent. A warm garage is an ideal location in which to dry hops because it’s out of the sun but hot enough (without being too hot) to encourage rapid dehydration.
7. Store your dried homegrown hops as you would (or should) store any other hops.
Vacuum seal them to keep oxidation at bay and freeze them to preserve freshness. Well-stored hops should remain good for at least a year. But if you brew as frequently as we do, there’s no way they’ll last that long.