This year, as part of my homerewing adventure, I have decided to try growing hops plants at home for the first.
These essential plants for the home brewer are not particularly difficult or requiring a complicated technique to grow. Just keep in mind you need a lot of space, as hops can get up to 20 to 25 feet tall and will establish a deep root system. Hops are not invasive, though. You don’t need to be an expert gardener, and producing your own brewing hops will provide you with one more quality ingredient you can control to produce your beer. For years.
Spring is the prime time to plant hops. Hurry while supplies last! Right now you will find deals on hops rhizomes, the usual way hops are sold from online home brewing stores, they are sold between February and April, and if you’ve been thinking about planting hop, now is the time to take action.
1. In what season to plant and the importance of planning
Plant your rhizomes as soon as the soil can be worked. Early Spring. Depending on your region, this means between the end of February and the end of May in the northern hemisphere.
Planning is important because you won’t find RHIZOMES, i.e. root cuttings year-round. Growing hops from seeds is much more challenging. It takes a month or two in a cold environment and several more days at normal temperature for seeds to sprout, and seeds will produce either female plants, which bear the flowers, or male, useless for brewing. Another reason why you need to plan is that the first year your hop’s energy will be used to establishing a deep root system and as a result, producing only a small amount of flowers. Expect to harvest a normal crop from the second year on. The good news is that hops are perennials, meaning they grow back every year, so by planting hops you are making a long-term investment. Hops vines live for many years, up to 60 years in perfect conditions.
2. Learn how to test and manage your Soil
Hops plants prefer rich and sandy soil, with good drainage.
Ideally, your planting soil should have a PH (Potential for Hydrogen) between 6 and 7.5 on the scale that ranges from 0 to 14 and indicates if the element is acidic or basic (one alkaline). You can measure the PH in different ways. A quick test can be performed with vinegar, which will react with alkaline soil, 8 and up – and with baking soda, which will react with an acidic soil 6 and under. You can get a better reading with a PH meter, or using PH strips. Regardless of the method you choose to use, take samples from 3 different locations of your soil, mix a loose sample of dirt with enough distilled or rainwater to get the consistency of milkshake, and wait for a minute or so.
If you need to adjust your soil PH, you will find useful information on how to do it here.
3. Which climate and exposure are best?
Most hops varieties are native plants from temperate zones, between 30th and 50th parallel, in both hemispheres. Because hops grow fast, they need a good amount of water during the growing season, and at least 6 hours of sun daily. As the bines (hop vines) die every year, at the end of the season, and the plant goes dormant, it’s not affected by frost. It’s a hardy plant. Some hops varieties prefer mild climates, others prefer warmer climates, but most will grow anywhere in America. Ideally, where temperatures range between 40F and 70F during the growing season, this is why 75% of the USA’s hop production comes from the Pacific Northwest region. Hops are hardy in growing zones 3 through 8. If the weather gets warmer than that in your region, make sure the plant gets 4 to 5 hours of shade a day. Hops are also drought-resistant when their root system is established and runs deep to pick up the soil’s moisture there.
You will be growing hops plants at home easily if you select the best exposure. Hops need lots of sunshine, 6 to 8 hours a day. Southern is preferred, and Eastern or Western will work too as second choice.
4. What to know to successfully plant hops in your backyard
Keep your rhizomes in a plastic bag with a little moisture in the fridge until you are ready to plant. They will last a couple of months.
You may plant your hops rhizomes directly in the soil. They should be spaced at least 3 feet apart if they are from the same cultivar, and 5 feet apart if they are from different cultivars. Dig a foot deep hole. Remove all weeds. Work the soil with the compost mixture mentioned before that will provide lots of nutrients to the plant. The rhizome may be planted horizontally or vertically. The benefits of planting it vertically are that is anything happens, such as frost damage or rodent eating the rhizome, you still have buds below, deeper in the soil. The eyes or buds must be pointing up and covered with about 1.5″ of soil in the shape of a mount. This will keep the young roots warmer and create good drainage. Cover with 1″ of mulch (or straw) to keep the soil moister. Water new plants frequently, but don’t overwater. The roots would rot.
If you decide to start your hops in containers, make sure you have a large pot, I picked a 22″ diameter by 21″ tall tub. Make sure the pot has holes at the bottom to allow proper drainage. The benefits of starting in pots are that you can test different spots in your yard before planting directly in the soil.
5. Managing the hops plants growth the right way
The first season, the plant needs frequent, moderate watering. Hops plants as perennials follow a cycle of buds breaking – flowering – dying of the bines – going dormant. The dates of each stage depend on the season’s temperatures. It takes 120 days for the flowers to fully ripen.
From the time the vines are coming out of the ground and reach about a foot, they need to be trained. There are different ways to manage your bines. First, you will need to prepare a trellis, between 10 and 15 ft tall with a pole and heavy-duty twine. Hemp twine makes it easy for the bine to climb. Anchor the twine at the foot of the plant. Wrap the bine around the twine clockwise in the northern hemisphere, and counter-clockwise in the southern hemisphere at least 3 times, 2 weeks apart, and then the plant will take care of itself. Allow 2 bines per string, and 2 strings per plant. All extra shoots should be pruned. Hops plants may also be trained horizontally, this needs to be done manually all along.
When days start getting shorter, end of June (in the Northern Hemisphere), sidearms will shoot from the bine – this is the flowering stage when hops start producing cones. Keep the bottom 3 feet of the plant free of foliage, branches and weeds, to ensure its good health. It’s time watch the color, texture and size of the cones.
In winter, usually around January or February (in the Northern Hemisphere), brush the dirt away from your mount and prune the roots so the plant doesn’t spread. This needs to be done annually.
6. Harvesting and drying hops for best aromas
In the first year, your hops plant will put more energy into building up their roots and give you above half of a normal crop. The second year, expect 75%, and the third year a full crop.
You’ll know the cones are ready to harvest when they’re springy, dry and a little sticky. The bright green color should start turning lighter green to green/ yellow, and the cones should be fragrant. Harvesting at the proper time is critical to the best quality of the hops aromas. This typically occurs in August or September in the Northern Hemisphere. You may do several pickings or wait for all the flowers to be ripe, then cut the twine from the top of the trellis and let the bine fall down to 2 to 3 feet from the ground. The cut off bines can be composted.
Hops cones need to be dried or they won’t store well. They can be air-dried, on a window screen or a similar frame with mesh, sheltered from the weather and wind. It takes a couple of days to dry at natural temperatures. If you use a dehydrator, it should not exceed 140F. It will take you 12 hours to dry your hops at that temperature. Bag and freeze with as little air as possible. They will stay fresh 6 to 12 months.
“The complete joy of homebrewing” as Charlie Papazian to quote the title of his book, comes from being free to source the ingredients you desire and to create the beer you love to make and drink. In this day and age of hopefully return to a more sustainable lifestyle in which quality and the concept of local production is important, growing your ingredient has a purpose. Whether gardening brings you to home brewing, or vice-versa, you will enjoy the process of growing hops plants at home.
This year I selected old world, noble hops varieties to grow home, as I am interested in recreating a sense of place in my home brewing effort – some would call it terroir? I planted Kent Golding and Spalt Select. I would love to hear about your comments or questions or growing hops at home.
Cheers, and to our health!