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Guest Post – Growing Hops for Self-Sufficiency in Brewing

 
By Kenny Raughley

For many people homebrewing is a step along the path to self-sufficiency. Homebrewing provides the opportunity not only to produce a useful and enjoyable alcoholic beverage, but also to decrease your reliance on outside inputs and increase your self-sufficiency.  Water, Yeast, Malt and Hops are the four key ingredients in beer and by learning to provide some of these inputs for ourselves we can increase our self-sufficiency in the brewing process itself.  One of the first and easiest steps towards self-sufficiency that a brewer can take is to grow their own Hops.

Hops are one of the key ingredients in beer but with a relatively small time investment you can potentially grow all of the Hops you’d need to brew year-round.  Some additional benefits of growing your own Hops are the ability to use rare or specialty Hops in your beer, the ability to control the chemicals, if any, used to grow the Hops, and the added insights you can gain as a brewer.  They are also a very attractive plant and their fast rate of growth is quite an amazing sight to witness.  Once they are established, Hops generally don’t need a lot of care to produce an abundant crop year after year.

Unlike most vegetable garden plantings, Hops are usually grown from a root cutting called a rhizome rather than from seed.  Hops plants can be both male and female but the female plants are the only ones which are useful for brewing.  When a rhizome is cut from a plant it carries not only the varietal characteristics of the plant it was taken from, but also the gender, allowing clones of successful plants to be grown over and over again and shared.  Hops rhizomes can be purchased (Jason Note:  Those looking for a place for purchasing hop bines should look at gurneys.com) online or at many local homebrew shops but often times other gardeners and homebrewers will be a good source of free rhizomes.

The first thing to do in preparing to plant is to select a location that is both well-draining and has good sun exposure.  Hops like to be watered well and can grow very rapidly under good conditions but once established they don’t need a lot of care or maintenance to ensure good growth.

Once a good location is selected you’ll want to dig about a foot down to loosen the soil and mix in a good compost so that you end up with a mound about a foot above ground level.  Plant the rhizome on the top of this mound, about an inch beneath it’s surface and with the buds facing towards the sky.  Water the mound fairly well and after a couple weeks of warm weather you should start to see a few little bines shoot out from the mound.  For most of the US the proper planting time will be some time around late March, though it may vary a bit depending on where you are located.

Once the Hops start to grow they will begin looking for something to climb and that is where trellising comes into play.  First year plants will put most of their energy into establishing a good root system and you should probably trim them back to about 3-5 bines per plant.  In my first year of hop gardening my trellis for each plant was simply a 2×2, 10 feet long, sunk a foot into the ground with twine stapled to the top and then run down to the ground for the bines to climb.  By July of that first year my Hops had climbed to the top and tangled around in themselves but the roots were well established.

For my second year of hop gardening I decided that I needed to build a bigger and more sustainable trellis system.  I looked at what commercial hop growers used, and saw a lot of clever trellises built by other homebrewers but in the end I came up with something I hadn’t quite seen anywhere else but which has worked beautifully for me so far.

My 6 plants are set in a row, spaced 5 feet apart and on either end of the row I sunk a 4×4, 16 feet long, about 3 feet into the ground and secured them with concrete.  To the tops of these I attached pulleys and a few feet up from the ground I attached a cleat on each pole.  Through the pulleys I run a heavy duty rope and tie each end off on the cleats.  I estimate the spot on the rope that is directly above each plant, lower the rope and then tie lengths of twine to the rope using a larks knot and run the twine down to the Hops.

I chose 4×4 lumber as I felt it would be sturdy enough to use without extra guy lines to support the weight and thus far it’s held up very well, though the wood has warped a bit with time.  Alternatively you could use just about anything that will enable you to safely locate the pulleys at least 15 feet above the ground.

The key feature in this design is that the trellis is adjustable.  This means you can raise and lower the Hops bines throughout the growing season to inspect and harvest Hops at exactly the right time.  I’ve had great luck in getting 2 or 3 harvests in a season by lowering the trellis, picking the Hops that were ready to be harvested and then raising the trellis again and allowing the immature Hops to continue to grow until they’re ready to pick.

Harvesting the Hops with this trellis design is no trouble at all.  I typically use a brown paper bag for each variety and pick all the Hops I can reach before adjusting the trellis to pick more.  The optimum time to harvest is when the cones feel almost like paper and crunch, rather than squish, when squeezed.  If you see the edges starting to turn brown it’s also an indicator that it’s time to harvest that hop cone.

Once you have your Hops harvested you’ll need to dry them out.  For drying Hops there are plenty of options but I chose to take a simple route.  An oscillating fan and a screen door screen set on it’s side are a great way to dry out Hops.  Support the screen on the ends so that air can flow above and below it and then spread the Hops out in a single layer on the screen.  Turn the fan on low, just enough to keep air around the Hops moving and wait about a day or two.  The Hops will be done drying when they are very light and crunchy.  As soon as the Hops are dried you’ll want to package and label them to preserve the harvest.

For packaging and storage I’d recommend a vacuum sealer and refrigeration.  If you have your brewing or kitchen scale handy it’s useful to package the Hops into measured amounts so that you can just grab what you need for brewing without a need to repackage and reseal the unused Hops.  I’ll typically label my Hops with the variety, harvest date and the weight of Hops in the package.  To store your Hops properly you’ll want to protect them from light and heat, so a nice dark corner of the fridge is perfect.  You don’t want to store them in the freezer.

At the end of the growing season you can cut the bines down to a few inches above the ground and new bines will grow back next spring.  Covering the hop crown with some compost or mulch will help protect it over the winter as well as provide nutrition.  The bines themselves also make excellent wreaths if you aren’t already planning to compost them.

When formulating beer recipes which use home-grown Hops there are a few additional considerations to keep in mind.  One of the key considerations in using a Hop for brewing, particularly with bittering Hops, is it’s alpha-acid content.  It’s been my experience that home-grown Hops tend to have slightly less alpha-acid content than commercially grown and packaged Hops.  The easiest way I’ve found to adjust for this in my recipes is to look up projected alpha-acid content for the particular varieties I’m growing and then estimate the alpha-acid content to be on the low side of those numbers.  This will generally get you in the ball-park for recipe formulation and you can tweak the amount of Hops used on subsequent batches as needed.  There are also commercial labs that will do testing for a fee but I don’t have any personal experience with them.  On a small-scale hop garden with multiple varieties, I’ve found estimation of alpha-acids to be sufficient to make good beer.

I hope this article has encouraged any homebrewers out there to try their hand at growing Hops.  It’s a great way to increase your self-sufficiency, and provides a way to have more complete control of what goes in to the beer you brew.  With the cost of Hops rising since the hop shortage a few years ago the added sustainability of growing your own Hops makes a lot of sense.  If nothing else, the personal satisfaction that comes with brewing a beer made from Hops you’ve grown yourself      ensures that Hops have a place in almost any garden.

5 comments to Guest Post – Growing Hops for Self-Sufficiency in Brewing

  • Awesome info!!

    Next up – coffee plants and tobacco 🙂

  • Jason

    Hey Jen, I’ve got a tobacco show about 5-6 episodes back. Coffee plants are a different story. Still working on that one.

  • As a fellow hops grower, I’d like to add that 12′ of trellis is still very short. Ideally, 20-25′ of vertical length should be your goal. The spacing is good, though you should use some wood or stone to partition different varieties at least 4′ under the soil. Since they multiply primarily by rhizome (assuming you have no male plants, which are prohibited by law anyway), they will grow together very quickly underground.

    Trellis height is important, and will vary depending on your location. Basically, the longer the growing season, the taller you want your trellis. Once the bines reach the top, they droop over, which signals the plant to flower. The taller the plant is, the higher your yield. Some people grow them over arbors or other short structures. That will look great, but the yields will be very low in comparison to a high trellis. However, if you have 2-3 plants, even with low yields, you’ll have more than enough to brew a few hundred gallons.

    Freezing hops works fine if they are properly dried first. What you’re really after is the pollen, which can definitely be frozen (it’s 90% oil). The buds can freezer burn if there’s moisture left in them, so dry them first.

    The dried bines make excellent rope. There probably aren’t many traditional hobbyist rope makers left out there, but it’s an easy skill to master and you can never have enough rope in the garden.

    Don’t forget, hops aren’t the only bittering agent in beer. The Scots and Celts used heather tips, which are easy to grow and take up less space. Juniper bark has been used for centuries. As long as you’re brewing, plant some apple trees for cider, grapes and plums for wines, pears, cherries… You can make excellent home-brew out of damn near anything.

  • Kenny

    Thanks for the comments and the additional info! Freezer burn was the reason I’d heard to avoid freezing hops. Do you know of an easy way to get them dry enough to freeze safely? I haven’t run into any lack of room to climb in my current location but I definitely agree, the higher the trellis the better! If you’ve got any links to making rope from hop bines I’d love to read them!

  • I dry mine by hanging them in an old barn (a tool shed or garage would work just as well). I cut the bines at ground level and drop them, flowers in tact. Then I hang them in a covered area. 3-4 days is usually enough if conditions are dry and you have some good air flow. If it’s humid or the drying area has low air circulation, a cheap box fan set to low will help. They should be brown and the cones almost crisp.

    As for the rope making, it’s pretty simple. You strip the leaves off the dried bines and roll them (or pound with a hammer). The idea is to squash the bine so the fibers separate. From there you can twist it by hand to make cording, or buy a cording spindle. The result is a small twine, great for use in the garden. You can make a roping spindle out of some cheap lumber and steel bar. That will twist the twine into a full rope. There are lots of videos on you-tube. I believe I saw one from Cornell University a while back that gave a good explanation of the spinning apparatus, so it should be easy to reproduce. Honestly, the hops cording is strong enough for most of my needs, the few lengths of rope I’ve made was done manually by hand. It’s a lot of work, but it goes fast once you get the hang of it. A great survival skill to have, but buying rope is easier. Once you’re skilled in rope making, you can produce a stronger product than commercially available hemp ropes, you’ll learn about oiling and pounding them to soften and strengthen them etc. The synthetics however are almost always more durable.