How to Grow Your Own Hops

Learn to grow your own hops in the back yard. This thorough guide is a perfect start for any homebrewer looking to elevate the quality of their brews.

| April 2019

hop-bine-hanging
Tettnang Hops on the bine
Author's Collections

Botanical Name: Humulus lupulus
Plant Type: perennial vine
USDA Zones: 3–8
Height: 20 feet or more with trellising
Soil: well-drained loam
Light: full sun
Water: regular
Growth Habits: vining bines. The plants should be trellised.
Propogate By: rhizomes. Plant the rhizomes vertically with the buds facing up, or horizontally 1 to 2 inches deep after the threat of frost is past.
Spacing: 3 feet between plants of the same cultivar or 5 feet between different varieties
Years to Bearing: one to three. The first year’s crop is usually weak. Generally, hops plants take three years to produce a brew-worthy harvest. Yields continue to increase over the next several years.
Pruning: Failure to prune results in badly tangled bines and difficulty in harvesting. Train three to four main bines up strings on a hops trellis. As the season progresses, cut out any bines that scramble along the ground. At the end of the growing season, prune the vines to 2–3 feet.
Harvest: From midsummer on, check the cones regularly for ripeness. Indicators are a pleasant aroma, papery feel, and—in some varieties—a change in color from green to yellow green. Ripe cones feel dry and will leave behind a slightly sticky lupulin residue upon handling. Begin picking at the top of the plants where the cones are likely to be ready soonest. On a single plant, the cones mature at different rates, so be prepared to harvest every few days until the cropping is complete, usually by the end of September.
Notes: A single well-grown hops plant can yield up to 6 pounds of fresh cones—plenty for most home brewers. Fertilize first-year plants once a month with a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10. For established plants, apply the same fertilizer twice a month from emergence of the cones until flowering. A mulch of compost or manure applied once a year is helpful.
Best Used In: beer, cider

Hops for Flavor

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that choosing hops is about more than horticulture; it’s about taste. Brewers know that different hops impart different characteristics. For example, hops can be used for bitterness, aroma, or both. Which hops are best suited for each purpose relates to the alpha and beta acids contained in hops flowers that are integral to the brewing process. Alpha acids are so important that hops varieties are rated according to how much they produce: The higher the percentage, the higher the potential bitterness. Be aware, though— the alpha acid percentages of homegrown hops can vary from year to year. For this reason, many homebrewers use their homegrown hops for aroma purposes only and use commercial hops for bittering.

The most overt result of these alpha acids is the bitter flavor they bring to beer. This quality adds to the distinctive flavor of beer and offsets the yeasty overtones of the malt. Alpha acids are released through boiling. Longer boil times free up more alpha acids, resulting in increasingly bitter brews. Hops that are used for bittering are usually added at the start of a boil that will last for at least sixty minutes. All hops release different levels of bitterness, aromas, and flavors depending on when they are added during the boil.



In addition, alpha acids have antibacterial properties that act to preserve beer. This antiseptic additive was a breakthrough for early brewers who knew the heartbreak of a spoiled cask. Before hops, beer was made with whatever herbs the brewmaster had on hand. Then one happy day, hops came to hand, and beer was redefined. Flavor was a big piece of the epiphany, but equally important were the microbe-killing capabilities of hops, which elevated the act of tapping a keg from potential disappointment to predicable joy.

In days past, hops with high levels of alpha acids were classed as bittering hops, while those with alpha acid ratios closer to those of its beta acids were termed aroma hops. This is no longer true. Breeding breakthroughs in the United States have simplified brewing with the development of dual-purpose hops, such as Simcoe, Amarillo, and Citra, which have high alpha acid levels but are also used for aroma. Adding hops after fermentation, also known as “dry hopping,” is widely considered the most effective way to extract the delicate hop aroma. They also can be extracted during the boil, but if added too early, the aromatic properties are reduced. During fermentation and storage, the alpha acids gradually mellow and beta acids increase by oxidation. This process lies behind the distinctive taste and quality of lagers and aged beers. It’s also why hoppy beers like India Pale Ales are best consumed fresh.

Hops Varieties

In the United States, hops are best adapted to Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, and other regions with mild temperatures and low humidity. This does not, however, rule out home grown hops in other parts of the country. At one time or another, hops have been grown in every state in the nation. In ultra-chilly New England and the Midwest, the sticky southeast, and the baking southwest, hops can be produced with a bit of extra planning and preparation.

Hops are hardy in USDA Zones 5 to 9, but winter hardiness is just one consideration. Know your region and the challenges hops plants may face. Does high humidity encourage diseases such as powdery mildew that can kill some varieties to their crowns? Do harsh, prolonged winters mean seeking out particularly hardy hops? Recommendations from local growers can go a long way toward your success. In the end, trial and error is your surest means to a productive hop yard.

The most challenging conditions for hops are hot, dry locales below the 35th parallel. (Yes, Phoenix, I’m talking about you.) But dedication can win the day. If you prepare a deep planting bed with lots of compost, are willing to experiment, and give your hops lots of shade and water (especially in July and August), you have a chance of overcoming your climate. In these punishing regions, bittering hops may be a better bet than aromatics. In this case you (the hobby grower) actually have an advantage over commercial growers in that you can afford to coddle your few plants.

Hops in the Garden

At last, it’s time to stop researching and start ordering your plants. Grab a cold one and find a source of hops plants that specializes in your region, often a local homebrew supplier. As you peruse their offerings keep this in mind: If your goal is to brew, start with at least three or four varieties. This not only helps ensure against crop failure but also gives you a range of flavors and alpha acid levels with which to experiment. Consider starting small with only a few plants. Four plants grown well will yield more and better hops than a whole row of neglected plants. A single well-grown hops plant can yield up to 6 pounds of fresh cones—plenty for most homebrewers. Although the initial crop may be disappointing, the harvest will increase in subsequent years.

hops-bine
Cascade hops on the bine
Author's Collections

Hops are sold as dormant rhizomes or potted plants. Hops in pots can be planted any time the soil can be worked, but may be hard to find in all seasons. Freshly dug rhizomes are offered only in early spring. If the rhizomes cannot be planted immediately upon arrival, wrap them in damp newspaper or damp sawdust and store in a cool place. The refrigerator works well if you have room in your crisper for large, lumpy roots.

When the time comes to plant your hops, siting is critical. For best production, hops want a site with full sun, good air circulation, soil that neither bakes nor bogs, and room for some form of trellising. Although a southern exposure is not absolutely necessary, less optimal exposures will result in smaller cones. Home growers should place one plant per hill with a manageable 3-foot spacing for plants of the same cultivar, or 5 feet between different varieties. The difference in spacing between like and unlike cultivars is one of order and identification: The closer the plants are, the more prone they are to hopeless tangling, in which case you’ll never know which flowers you’re picking. Tight spacing also lowers yields as the plants compete for light. Plant the rhizomes vertically with the buds facing up, or horizontally 1 to 2 inches deep after the threat of frost is past. Then stand back. At the peak of growth the plants can climb as much as a foot per day to a height of 20 feet or more. Bloom time is from mid- to late-summer. The plants should have at least ten to twelve productive years ahead.

Hops are climbers. Period. If not provided with support, they will find their own. Fences, trees, telephone poles, the neighbor’s garage—nothing within 10 feet that can’t run away is immune to their hoppy hug. That said, the bines’ tiny, clinging hooks do not seem to damage the host, especially if the bines are removed each winter when they die back to the crown. To be safe, use caution in allowing hops to climb on porch supports or thin-barked trees.



Although hops will grow up practically anything they can wrap themselves around, for ease of picking consider growing your plants on strings or poles attached at the top to a strong horizontal wire. This system can be designed so that the wire can be unfastened and lowered for easy harvesting. Once the hops raise their heads a foot above the ground, coax them clockwise around their supports. As they grow, continue to steer them in the right direction as needed.

Fertilize first-year plants once a month with a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10. Follow the manufacturer’s directions and apply to new plants from the first sight of new growth until early July. For established plants, apply the same fertilizer twice a month from emergence until flowering. A mulch of compost or manure applied once a year also helps the plants along. Water well during the growing season, especially for the first two years after your hops are planted, but don’t let them sit in soggy soil. In swampy ground, plant the rhizomes in mounds raised 6 to 8 inches above ground level. If the site drains well, regular watering will fuel the bines’ rocket-like growth and boost flower production.

Supporting Your Hops

A hops structure must, above all else, be sturdy. A fancy trellis or elegant arbor for hops is like a training bra for an underwear model: Too much stress and too little coverage. Forget lacy lattice; you need support that’s up to the job. Although hops can be grown on a fence or other horizontal structure, the bines are equally adept at climbing straight up. Professional hops growers take advantage of this upstanding nature with vertical trellis systems that allow maximum sun exposure to the plants as well as easier access to the cones. Hop yards are forests of 18-foot poles spaced 3 to 4 feet in rows 14 feet apart. Guy wires are attached at the top of the poles down each row. Upright wires are then placed along the row in Vs, starting at the ground and angling up to each side.

hops-hanging
You can use a plastic pipe to support your hops
Author's Collections

A system like this is certainly useful to a home hops growers, however, other supports can be considered. An old flagpole can be pressed into service, with three or more support lines spaced evenly around the base, beginning several feet away and attaching to the top. Even better, attach them to the pulley system so that the lines can be lowered at harvest time. If no flagpole is available, a similar system can be devised with a pole or 4x4 post. To avoid posts altogether, three or four support wires can be run from the ground and angled up to meet at the peak of the eaves of a building with a southern exposure; once again, a pulley makes bringing the bines down a simple job.

For most hops supports, poles or posts and some form of line is standard. Wire rope, aircraft cable, or heavy twine can be used. Hops bines will also happily scramble directly up the posts themselves or the narrow columns of a porch or pergola. Avoid lattice or chain link fencing. The bines will tangle hopelessly in anything they can, which will make the job of winter removal a bigger chore than it needs to be.

Developing New Hops

Not all hops cultivars are available to the homegrowing public. Many newly developed hops are protected by public and private breeders. Until the 1990s, most new varieties were released directly to the public. Now, however, it’s common for private companies to keep their plants proprietary. That’s not to say homegrowers will never have access to these varieties. Public breeders eventually bring their best creations to market, and the patents on privately held hops ultimately expire. And we have plenty to keep us busy in the meantime; while we wait for the new and novel, there are more than two dozen good and commonly available cultivars from which we can choose today.

Many modern hops cultivars have arisen, in part, from three key parents. Brewer’s Gold (bittering), Fuggle (English aroma), and Hallertauer mittelfrueh (German aroma) are ancestors of most of the hops available today. Until recently, breeding programs focused on improved hops strains to replace existing ones. For example, a new variety may have improved resistance to spider mites, aphids, or powdery and downy mildew, or produce higher yields, but otherwise match the acid and alpha ratios of the plant it was designed to replace. This kind of linear breeding is purely practical; large brewers don’t want to change their recipes, but hop growers benefit from productive plants that require minimal pest control.

The recent rise of the craft beer industry has led to a widening of some breeding programs to develop cultivars with unique chemical and aroma profiles. For professional hops breeders, the road from pollination to production is a long and expensive one. New releases can be in development for fourteen or more years. As the new varieties mature, hops breeders compile data on traits such as disease resistance, yield, age of maturity, coning habit, and many different chemical characteristics such as bittering acids and essential oil content. Hops take years to come to full fruition.

Harvesting Your Hops

You’ve been patient, sitting in the shade of your hops bower dreaming of worts and sparging. It’s finally time to harvest those hops. How do you know? Beginning in August—as early as June in some regions—the cones should be checked regularly for ripeness. Indicators are a pleasant aroma, papery feel, and in some varieties, a change in color from green to yellow green. Ripe cones feel dry and will leave behind a slightly sticky lupulin residue upon handling. The base of the bracts should be heavy with lupulin. To check the readiness of your crop, pull open a cone and look for this dark gold powder. Cones that are deep green, vaguely damp, and smell of hay are unripe; if these cones are pressed between the fingers they remain flattened while a ripe cone will spring back. If, on the other hand, cones are beginning to brown or smell unpleasantly strong, they have passed their prime.

hops-picking
Shutterstock

Begin picking at the top of the plants where the cones are likely to be ready soonest. On a single plant the cones mature at different rates, so be prepared to harvest every few days until the cropping is complete, usually by the end of September. Wear long sleeves and gloves when harvesting to guard against the skin-raking bine spines. Remove the cones gently, with two hands, to avoid losing any of the precious lupulin. Use a picking basket or bag that can be slung over your shoulder or attached to your belt to keep your hands free. Once picked, the hops should never again be in direct sunlight—unless you prefer beer that has overtones of scared skunk.

The hops may be used immediately as green hops in a wet-hopped ale to commemorate the harvest, or dried for future use. In wet-hopped brews, hops fresh off the plant are added during the boil. This gives the resulting beer a fresh, springy flavor. The downside to this is the difficultly of knowing how much of the fresh hops to add. When fresh, hops have a much higher and more unpredictable moisture ratio than dried hops, and this makes it a bit tricky to judge the amount of green hops to be used in any recipe.

Drying Hops

Most brews rely on dried hops. Dried hops allow more precise control over lupulin amounts and, thus, the final result. For best quality, the hops must be properly dried as soon after harvest as possible to preserve their flavor and aroma. Hops can be dried via old-fashioned air drying or with mechanically assisted methods such as a fan, food dehydrator, oven, microwave, or even a homemade hop drier. Low and slow should be your mantra when drying hops. Heat drives off some of the aromatic complexity of the cones; too much heat will ruin them completely.

hops-drying
Shutterstock

Two preservation methods, air and fan drying, avoid heat altogether. Air drying can be done in any warm, dark, dry room with good air circulation and enough space for the hops to be laid out in a single layer on anything from open paper bags to clean window screens. Fluff the cones every day or two and cover them with cheesecloth if dust is a concern. Your hops should be ready in three days to a week. When the lupulin is falling away and the stems snap when bent, the cones are sufficiently dry. If not thoroughly dried, the hops will mold and be unfit for brewing.

If you recognize the benefits of air drying, but crave a more dynamic and faster method than that of passive screen drying, put a fan beneath the screen. For airdried hops in twenty four hours, attach two screens together with a layer of hops in between. Bungee cord the result to a box fan. Keep watch over the hops in the final hours to keep them from becoming overly dry. If they dry too much, your lupulin can be gone with the wind.

Food dehydrators should be turned to the lowest temperature, around 95 degrees Fahrenheit, to dry hops. At this setting the cones may take up to three days to dry. To avoid having the house smell like a Bourbon Street bar on a Sunday morning, move the dehydrator to a garage or outbuilding. Ovens pose an even greater aroma risk, since the temperature may be higher and portability is impossible. Never dry hops at a temperature higher than 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

As with all heat-drying methods, microwaves can reduce the delicate aromatic essence of hops. On the plus side, microwaves can dry small batches of hops in only a few minutes. Dry the cones at fifty percent power. Stir every thirty seconds. When the hops are partially dried, remove them and give them time to finish drying. If they seem at all damp once they have cooled, return them to the microwave and continue the process. Once again, be prepared for a strong and potentially unpleasant smell.

Die-hard brewmasters can follow in the footsteps of the professionals by constructing a hops dryer, known as an oast. Oasts, or hop kilns, are derived from traditional English oast houses, which are the size of barns. Oasts rely on heated, circulating air for desiccation. A homemade, beehive-sized oast may not be as imposing as a three-story, furnace-heated architectural behemoth, but it is more appropriate to a backyard harvest. The best reason for considering an oast is to deal with a very large home harvest consisting of pounds of hops.

Storing Hops

Dried cones should be sealed in airtight plastic bags. Pack the bags tightly and squeeze out all the air, or better yet, vacuum seal them. The hops can be refrigerated to be brewed within a week, or frozen for up to a year. When you’re ready to fire up the kettle, the hops can be used directly from the freezer. Remove only the hops you need as thawing and refreezing can degrade the essential oils.



Hops Varieties

Brewer’s Gold: bittering (high alpha) hop. Black currant, citrus. Vigorous. High yield. Susceptible to all hop diseases. Midseason harvest. OK for Midwest.

Bullion: bittering (high alpha) hop. Blackberry. Vigorous. High yield. Somewhat disease resistant. Late season harvest.

Cascade: aroma hop. Spicy, floral, citrus. Gives flavor and aroma to American light lagers, American-style pale ales, and many other brews. Vigorous. High yield. Tolerant of verticillium wilt and downy mildew but susceptible to aphids. Midseason harvest. OK for Midwest and New England. A good choice for the Southeast.

Centennial: bittering (alpha acid) hop. Floral, citrus. Good in pale ales. Vigorous. Moderate yield. Moderately resistant to downy mildew and verticillium wilt. Midseason harvest. OK for Midwest and New England.

Chinook: bittering (high alpha) hop. Very bitter. Grapefruit, pine. High yield. Good storage stability. Midseason harvest. OK for Midwest. Somewhat tolerant of downy mildew and highly tolerant of insects, so a good choice for the Southeast. Also a good try for the Southwest.

Crystal: aroma hop. Mild, slightly spicy. Citrus. Vigorous. High yield. Cone tolerance to downy mildew.

East Kent Goldings: aroma hop. Spicy, floral, honey. Low yield. Susceptible to downy and powdery mildew and wilt. OK for Midwest.

Eroica: bittering (high alpha) hop. Vigorous. High yields. Resistant to insects and disease. Midseason harvest.

Fuggle(s): aroma hop. Mild, grass, flowers. Traditional English ale hop. Low to moderate yield. Susceptible to verticillium wilt. Early harvest. OK for Midwest.

Galena: bittering (high alpha) hop. Black currant, grapefruit. Very bitter. Vigorous. High yield. Midseason harvest.

Glacier: dual-purpose (bittering and aroma) hop. Citrus, fruit. High yield. Susceptible to mildew. Midseason harvest. OK for Midwest and New England.

Golding: English ale aroma hop. Honey, earthy. Moderate yield. Susceptible to powdery and downy mildew. Early to midseason harvest. OK for New England.

Liberty: aroma hop. Spicy, citrus. Good for finishing German-style lagers. Moderate yield. Midseason harvest.

Magnum: bittering (alpha acid) hop. A clean bittering hop for ales and lagers. High yield. Tolerant of downy mildew and wilt; susceptible to powdery mildew. Good storage stability. Late harvest. Good option for the Southwest.

Mount Hood: aroma hop. Grapefruit, herbal. Vigorous. Moderate to high yield. Moderately disease resistant. Midseason harvest. OK for Midwest.

Newport: bittering (alpha acid) hop. Herbal, cedar. High yield. Resistant to powdery mildew, susceptible to downy mildew. OK for Midwest. Good for Pacific Northwest.

Northern Brewer: dual-purpose (bittering and aroma) hop. Spicy, resinous. Low to moderate yield. Tolerant of verticillium wilt, susceptible to powdery mildew. Midseason harvest. OK for Midwest and New England.

Nugget: bittering (high alpha) hop. Spicy, fruit. Good for light lagers. Vigorous. High yield. Disease resistant. Good storage stability. Midseason harvest. Popular in the Pacific Northwest. OK for Midwest and New England. A good choice for the Southeast.

Perle: bittering (alpha acid) hop. German lager hop. Citrus, cedar. Moderate yield. Early season harvest. OK for Midwest and New England.

Saaz: high quality aroma hop. Earthy, herbal, mildly floral. Weak grower. Low yield. Susceptible to downy mildew. Early season harvest. OK for New England.

Spalt Select: aroma hop. Herbal, floral. German lager and ale hop. Moderate yield. Tolerant of verticillium wilt, downy mildew. Late harvest. OK for Midwest. Good in Pacific Northwest.

Tettnang: aroma hop. Mild, spicy, herbal. Good for finishing German lagers. Moderately vigorous. Low yield. Tolerant of verticillium wilt. Early season harvest. Good for New England. Also a good try for the southwest.

Willamette: aroma hop. Mild spicy, grassy, black currant. American ale hop. Moderate yield. Tolerant of downy mildew, resistant to viruses. Midseason harvest. Grown almost exclusively in the Pacific Northwest. OK for Midwest and New England.

Zeus: bittering (alpha acid) hop. Black pepper, licorice. Vigorous. Hardy. High yield. Susceptible to downy and powdery mildew as well as aphids and mites. Mid- to late- season harvest. OK for Midwest and New England Closely related to Columbus and Tomahawk.

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Reprinted with permission from Gardening for the Homebrewer by Wendy Tweten and Debbie Teashon and published by Voyageur Press, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Gardening for the Homebrewer.





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