Brewing can be a very personal thing. Homebrew is a product made from scratch using only your own labor and some grain, and I take a lot of pride in having a great beer that I made myself. I’m always looking for ways to connect more with what I’m brewing, so a couple of years ago I started a hops garden in my backyard. Cultivating hops is a great way to have a more involved brewing experience, and it can save you some money to boot.
Hops grow in a huge variety of climates all over the world, and wild hops are often abundant. Odds are you know someone with some wild hops growing somewhere in their yard. Talk to them and you’ll find that it’s often harder to NOT grow hops. Hops are tenacious, luckily for us, and they require very little care. Now that my plants are established, I don’t even water them anymore unless we’re in a drought. Even then I don’t generally bother, they’re still just hops after all, but they always seem to do fine.
Check out our article about Adding Hops to Your Boil.
To grow your own hops, the first thing you’ll want to do is find a supplier of hops rhizomes. There are dozens of suppliers all over the place and I don’t really recommend one over the others, so do a quick web search and you’re bound to find plenty of vendors. Rhizomes can typically only be ordered once a year, near the end of March, so now’s a good time to find a supplier. When they arrive, stick them in the fridge until you have time to plant them, but I wouldn’t wait longer than a week.
Once you get your rhizomes there’s not a ton more to do than stick them in the ground. You’ll want to plant them in an inch or two of dirt, and don’t plant them too close together. Be a little picky choosing your site; hops like sun, so don’t give them something too shady and avoid the north side of your house. As I said before, once they’re established hops pretty much grow on auto pilot, but while they’re new you need to keep them well watered so be diligent. Don’t go overboard though, you still need to let the ground dry out once and a while or your plants will rot.
Hops grow up, not out, so you need some type of support structure for them. I planted mine by the side of my house and ran a bunch of strands of twine up towards the gutters, but you can always just use a trellis instead. As the plants start growing, make sure they’re grabbing your structure and feel free to move them around a bit to help them out. (We’ll get some pictures in the Spring/Summer time)
For your first year growing hops, that’s probably it. Young plants often take two years to start producing hops cones, sometimes even three. It’s not unheard of to get cones right away, but don’t hold your breath. Cones or no, at the end of the year you’ll want to cut everything down significantly. I actually cut mine almost all the way to the root, though some sources say you should leave six inches or so. If you live in a cold climate, it’s good to put some straw over the plants to insulate them at the end of the season.
From year two on, you’ll follow the same basic pattern. Prune the first few growths that sprout each season. Your next sprouts will be heartier. Once you’ve got three or four strong shoots, prune back the others for the rest of the season. This will keep the plant’s energy focused and you’ll get better hops.
Sometime in late summer or early fall your hops will be ready to harvest. Towards the end of the season, the hops will start to dry out and get less dense. Try a squish test; if you squeeze a cone does it spring back into form? Does it make your hands smell like hops? Great, it’s probably time to pick them. Dark green or squishy hops aren’t ready yet, so be patient. I find it safer to harvest a little on the late side rather than early, but don’t let them start to brown either.
You’ll still need to dry your hops before you use them. There’s lots of different ways to accomplish this. The low tech version is just to set them outside for a while on a screen. It works just fine, but it takes some time. You can dry them in an oven on very low temp, but you’ll have to pay close attention to avoid crisping them. The high tech version is to buy a food dehydrator, but that’s probably a waste of money just for hops. I do the oven method myself, and it works great.
Once dry, use your hops like you’d use any other, and you’ll find that they are at least as good as any commercial hop. Now all you have to do is sit back and bask in the pride you’ll have knowing that your homebrew is just that much more homemade.
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