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.

Tettnang Hops on the bine
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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.



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