The story of the hops plant (Humulus lupulus) is deeply rooted in both time and tradition. Far before hops ever even met beer, there was documented proof of their use by humans. As far back as the time of the Romans, the flowering cones of the female hops plant are said to have been used in helping relieve people suffering from conditions such as anxiety and insomnia.
Way before anyone even thought of adding hops to beer, people were adding them to tea for their soothing effects. Thanks to science we now know that this is partially due to the small levels of the chemical dimethylvinyl carbinol, a chemical with slight sedative-like effects, found in hops.
It wasn’t until the year 822 AD that written evidence of using hops in the making of beer came to be. A man by the name of Abbot Adalhard from the Benedictine monastery of Corbie in the Picardy region of northern France set on paper a list of rules by which to run the abbey. Included in this set of rules was the direction to add hops to the beer they were brewing.
Since then, hops and beer have been rather close companions and it’s hard to think of one without thinking of the other. Beer without hops is rather sweet and the addition of hops to beer adds a mild bitterness as well as some flavor and aroma. And the good news is that anyone can become a part of this time-honored tradition by growing their own hops at home. It’s rewarding, especially if you brew your own beer, and it’s surprisingly easy to do.
The hops plant grows upwards as a vine and is a hardy perennial member of the flowering plant family Cannabaceae. For growing at home, plants breed through asexual reproduction by means of their rhizomes (roots).
A rhizome is similar to a bulb, like one would find with a tulip or iris, just different in shape. As the hops plant grows each year, so does its roots or rhizomes. Each year the growers of hops will dig down to the roots and split the rhizomes to prevent the base of the hops plant from spreading too far.
These unearthed rhizomes are then sold online and in brewing supply stores for us to grow at home. The reason they are reproduced this way is to ensure that the gender of the plant will be female because only the female plants will grow the beautiful burr that turns into the hops flower or cone. By splitting a rhizome from a known female plant, the grower removes any doubt of the coming plant's sex.
Usually the only time hops are grown from seed is when the grower wishes to cross-pollinate two different varieties to create a new distinct breed. In the first year, plants grown from a new rhizome will not deliver sprawling monster vines and tons of hops. The plants may not even flower in that first year. But as the years go by, the yields get bigger. The hops plant reaches maturity at around its third year. From then on it is possible to grow giant plants with massive yields.
Growing Hops at Home
The first step in growing your own hops is to acquire some rhizomes. Rhizomes typically start hitting store shelves in March. Keep in mind that you can't plant until the ground thaws and the risk of frost has subsided, so rhizomes purchased that early will have to be kept in a refrigerator to maintain freshness. Be sure to plant the rhizomes as soon as the ground is thawed and ready to be worked because a successful hops crop requires a minimum of 120 frost-free days, so it is ideal to plant them as early in the season as possible, and no later than May.
Hops love a well-draining soil, so if needed add soil amendments, like compost, to improve soil tilth. Many growers build small mounds of soil to plant in to ensure proper drainage of excess water. When planting multiple plants of the same variety, space the mounds 3 ft. apart. If the plants are a mix of varieties, space those 5-ft. apart to help avoid getting different vines tangled up together, which can create a real hassle come harvest time.
Plant the rhizomes at a depth of around 4 in. or so with the little buds on the rhizomes pointing up. I have had great success incorporating mycorrhizal inoculants at the time of planting. After the rhizomes are in the ground, cover with soil and water thoroughly. The growing vines should breech the soil within a week or so. Most hops plants love sunlight, so plant the rhizomes in a location that gets at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day. And make sure the location for growing has plenty of vertical room because the hops vine can grow very tall.
Caring for a Growing Hops Plant
As little vines begin to emerge from the soil, the first thing a grower should be worried about is watering, specifically when to water and how much. The root system of a first-year hops plant will be small so it’s important to water frequently but in small dosages. This may mean watering daily if there has been little rainfall.
With plants that are two years and older, the root systems are much more established and it is better to water less frequently—only two or three times a week during dry periods—but with a higher dosage level. Established hops plants benefit from what is referred to as a deep watering.
Using a method such as drip line irrigation gives the grower the ability to water slowly but for long periods of time, allowing the water to be absorbed deeply into the soil. As the plants grow bigger and start forming flowers, it may help to increase the amount of water dispersed with each watering, because at the time of maturity the hops flower is composed of around 70% water.
As I mentioned earlier, hops like to climb and they are darn good at it. It is imperative that the grower build some sort of trellis or maybe even just a pole in the ground with some strong twine or wire tied at the top of the pole going down to the base of the plant.
When the vines reach about 1-ft. long, begin training them to the trellis or twine. It is possible to run hop vines horizontally, similar to a grapevine; however, this method takes much more attention and vine training because they will want, with all their might, to grow straight up. For first-year plants, allow all of the emerging vines to grow.
This vigorous growth will help grow and establish the rooting system and prepare it for the dormant season and, subsequently, next year’s growth. For the years to follow, the most common advice is to heavily prune the plant until only two or three vines per plant are allowed to grow.
A hops vine can grow as tall as 25 ft. in one season, so it is beneficial to fertilize. It is a good idea to mix a slow release granular fertilizer into the soil when planting but not a must. Applying a fertilizer with a balanced NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), like a 10-10-10, once a month will increase growth and yield significantly.
For the organic grower, use a mixture of liquid fish emulsion, sea kelp extract and humic acid. Apply directly to the roots at the base of the plant—not the leaves—about once a month.
When to harvest hops
Hops usually begin forming flowers or cones around middle-to-late July but there can be slight variations between different varieties when it comes to harvesting times. Making a note of how long each type will take to mature will give the grower an idea of when they may be ready. The time-tested best way to know when hops are ready for harvest is to use and trust one's senses.
A ripe hops cone will be a lighter green when compared to one yet to reach maturation. But sight can only show so much. The next step is touch. Remove a cone from the vine—don’t worry, it is a worthy sacrifice when trying to pinpoint the exact peek of ripeness. Give the hops a little squeeze. If they feel somewhat soft and are slow to puff back up after being compressed, then they are not ready.
If that little cone feels more brittle and paper-like, and if, when squeezed, it pops back to its original shape with ease, then that cone may be ready to harvest. But, to be completely sure of its readiness, one must bring in the most sensitive of the senses: smell. Smashing the cone between one's fingers and even tearing the little cone to pieces should unleash a strong grassy. After being smashed and torn, a ripe hops flower will make your fingers sticky from the yellow pollen, known as lupulin.
Fresh hops can be used for making both beer and tea, but they must be used quickly before they go bad. If the hops are to be used at a later date, which is likely with a large harvest, they should be dried first and then stored in a freezer. They can be dried on a dehydrator but not for too long.
On a dehydrator they may only take a couple hours to dry, anything longer may ruin the quality of the hops. Another way to dry them is to build a frame with some two-by-fours, cover the area in the center of the frame with screen, place the hops on the screen and position a fan to blow the air around them.
This method may take more time to dry than a dehydrator but it is an easier way to ensure the quality of the hops. Once they are all dried, place them in an air-tight container and store them in the freezer.
Food saver-style vacuum seal bags work great. After the harvest is done and the hops are either used or in storage, it is now time to sit back, relax and consider yourself initiated into the time-honored tradition that is growing hops.
In the end, I want to leave you all with a warning: The hops flower/cone can be poisonous to dogs, so to stay on the safe side, keep any four-legged friends away from the plants.
This article is dedicated to the memory of J.T. Holden, a great writer and friend, who always reminded me that it’s OK to be a little weird.