Growing your own hops offers the chance to control the taste from mesmerizing start to satisfying finish. Are you ready to get your hands dirty?
Hops are an important part of the brewing process, but brewers often concentrate on other elements such as flavor elements and the percentage of alcohol in the beer. Discovering how to grow, cultivate and customize hop content is a big step for a brewmaster to take. But for those looking to make a truly one-of-a-kind beer that can only be tasted at one brewery, it might be worth looking at starting from scratch.
Just like everything else in the history of civilization, hops can be ordered off the Internet. Websites like Freshops and Brewhaus offer a variety of hops at different stages of development. Most brewers start out with hop extract or hop pellets, but soon move onto whole hops to get a true taste of experimentation in their drinks. The key to success with homegrown hops is harvesting a rhizome. The rhizome is a piece of root from a larger hop plant. They are typically sold in the spring and many hop merchants have them for pre-order as early as February.
Locally sourced ingredients aren’t just a popular choice for restaurant dishes. Resources exist for businesses that want access to fresh hops that also keep money within the local economy. Partnering with a local farm can give you the advantages of homegrown hops without having to devote space to the idea. If you’ve already got a garden for your own fresh fruits and vegetables, making a little space for a hop vine can let you bring the joy of homegrown hops to your next set of brews. But be warned—a hop plant can grow as much as two feet in a week until it enters the flowering stage!
Preparing Your Homegrown Hops
Once you have the rhizome, put it in at least an inch of dirt in an area with southern exposure. Eastern or western exposures will also do, but the hop cones won’t be as big. Point any buds upward, since those are already on the way and you want to help them grow and flower. Plant mixed varieties about five feet apart to keep them from tangling. If the varieties are related, they can be about three feet apart. If you decide to plant them a little deeper, be sure to mix in some kind of fertilizer or nutrients in with the soil.
Like all vine plants, hops want to crawl up something for support. Plant your hops near a fence, wall, or post to help them get a good start on growing. First year hops won’t grow too quickly, so you might have to be a bit more proactive in properly stretching and winding them to help them reach their full size. First year hops don’t have much in the way of roots, so they should be well watered to start. Make sure to let the ground dry out every now and again to keep the roots from rotting. Adding fertilizer can keep the plant alive, but be aware of your chemistry. The nitrogen in the fertilizer can affect the acid content of the hop cones. This is a great way to make aroma hops to finish off a beer, but higher alpha acid hops make for better bitters.
Once the vine flowers, the hop cones start forming. The true harvest comes in the fall, so give the cones some time to mature. Apply the squeeze test to see if the cones are ready. Damp cones that are very green and stay squished after you let go aren’t ready yet. Ripe cones dry out a little and produce more lupulin, which is the active ingredient in hops. If your hands get sticky from the yellow, powdery lupulin, that means it’s time to harvest. Enjoy the aromatics as you pull the cones and get them ready for drying.
The best way to dry homegrown hops is through a food dehydrator. Put them in the dehydrator for several hours and take them out when the hops feel like paper. If you can easily peel them from the stem, they are ready. If you don’t have access to a dehydrator, setting an oven to a very low temperature will do it. Brewers with a lot of patience can also just use a screen out of direct sunlight. As long as you’ve got air circulation and drying time, you’re doing fine. If they’ve turned brown, you’ve overdone it. It’s probably wise to try drying a small batch or two first before throwing everything into the process. Store the dried hops in an airtight container until you’re ready to use them. You probably want to use your first year hops as aroma and flavor since you won’t know their alpha acid content initially.
Homegrown hops truly don’t come into their own until the second or third year they’ve been planted in the same location. Take the time to prune the first shoots that come out of the ground the second year. The next set of shoots will be stronger for it. Select a few main vines and prune the rest. All the flavors will concentrate in the vines you’ve selected. Don’t forget: you can also sell (or give) a little bit of rhizome to pass on your hops to someone taking their first steps into complete brewing like you did a few years ago!
The key to great beer starts with great ingredients. Hops are an important part of any brewing process, and using homegrown hopsoffers a chance for a truly unique brew. Find a source for a rhizome to plant either on your property or a local farm looking to work with you. Take careful care of the vine and the first year you’ll have excellent aromatic hops to add to your beer. The more practice you have with homegrown hops, the more control you’ll have over how your beers taste.
Image courtesy Flickr user epicbeer.