Grow your Own Hops!

Home winemakers often grow their own grapes or harvest wild ones, but did you know that you can grow your own hops at home for beermaking as well? In areas suited to the crop, you can devote a sunny garden plot and grow one of the raw ingredients for your own brew.

First, you’ll want to find a well-drained spot that gets full sun. You’ll also want to set aside at least 20 feet of vertical space, since the hops bines can stretch out that far under ideal conditions. Set up a trellis for each plant with wires for the plant to climb. Make sure to order or buy the variety of hops rhizomes (the rootlike part of the plant used to propagate it) you want early in the spring to have them ready to go when the last frost date passes. Keep the rhizomes in a damp paper towel in a cool spot or the refrigerator.

When the last frost date passes, prepare the space by tilling at least a foot deep and then building mounds three feet apart. Plant one rhizome in each hill, four inches deep, and water in well. It’s a good idea to amend the soil with compost, just to give the new plant a boost of nutrients. You also can drench the hill with an organic liquid fertilizer if you don’t have a compost pile.

HBS-Hops-3-David-KingOnce the hops emerge, train the young growth by gently wrapping it around the bottom of your trellis wires. You may have to do this for a few days, but eventually the plant will start to wrap itself onto the trellis. Remove any weak growth, leaving four to six healthy bines per mound. And a after two months or so, carefully trim off any leaves or growth in the first three feet of the plant to prevent the spread of soil-borne diseases.

Water enough to keep the soil moist, but not soggy, and mulch the mound in particularly hot weather to keep the roots cooler and to retain moisture.

Fortunately, there are only a  few major pests that affect hops, especially in places where there they have never been planted. Good garden practices like prompt cleanup of fallen leaves and frozen plants, as well as removal of weaker growth, can keep pests like aphids and spider mites away. Healthy plants – ones getting enough nutrients from the soil – usually can withstand attacks from pests. Growing beds of bug-deterrent plants like African marigolds, nasturtiums and garlic can keep pests away as well. Control small infestations with homemade pepper or garlic sprays.

The plant will put out green cones and HBS-Hops-2-David-Kingthey will grow larger throughout the season. By the end of the summer or early fall, they will ripen. A ripe cone feels papery and springy, and it should be filled with yellow lupulin powder. If the cones are heavy and green, don’t pick them. Check them every day and be sure to pick before they turn brown; some will ripen earlier than others.

To dry your hops as you pick them, lay them in a single layer on a flat surface away from direct sunlight. Turn on a fan and let it blow gently across them for a few hours, then turn them. Continue until there is no moisture left on their surfaces. You also can dry hops by storing them in a brown paper bag in a cool, dark place for a few weeks, and some home brewing vendors also sell hop-drying kits. Store the dried hops in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them for brewing.

HBS-Hops-4-David-KingOnce you have picked all your hops, cut the bines back to three feet high. The first frost will kill any remaining growth. In areas with cold winters, protect the rhizomes in the ground with a tarp or a protective cover. You also can mulch them heavily. The next spring, dig into your hills, clean up the rhizomes, add fertilizer and then loosen the soil for another crop.

written by David King

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