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Growing and Brewing with Homegrown Hops

Growing and Brewing with Homegrown Hops

Growing hops is not only rewarding, it’s ridiculously fun, especially if you want the experience of making your own fresh hopped homebrew every year!  This week, we’ll talk about how easy and rewarding homegrown hops can be, including how to plant and nurture them for the best harvest, how to know when to harvest, some cool and easy DIY drying methods, and even how to best maintain your personal hop fields for the best outcome every year!
Homegrown Hops from Rhizome
Yvonne's Hops Breaking Ground
It All Starts With a Rhizome
One of my favorite characteristics of hops is that anybody can grow them.  It’s as simple as grabbing a rhizome (basically a chunk of root with the power to make more roots - think of the root system on hops as growing the same way that the root system on grass does) from a friend, from your favorite local homebrew shop, or from a nursery that knows about beer. The beauty of rhizomes is that they’re easy to get, easy to store until after the last frost, and easy to grow!

To plant the rhizomes, really all you have to do is plug them under a few inches of soil horizontally and keep them wet.  Seriously, that’s it!  You don’t have to worry about them facing a certain way or anything crazy, because they are already wired to figure it out on their own.  Just don’t put them under so much soil that they can’t push leaves up to the sun!  I’ve read a lot of articles on these interwebs that recommend deep planting, as much as twelve inches, and that’s just way too much!  Enough dirt to cover them comfortably is all you need, so stick to a few inches.

For some of us, this planting happens in early spring, say the beginning of April, and for some it will be a little later.  Pay attention to where you live, because you’ll want to make sure that they go in the ground after the last frost wherever you are, be it the Yakima Valley, Louisiana, or Northern Nevada.  Try not to plant early and rely on the plastic bag or ‘wrapping’ method that you see avid gardeners use with their tomatoes.  You have plenty of time!  Plus, it’s really hard to wrap a root!
Cascade Fresh Hops
Jason's Fresh Cascade Hops
  How Long Before I Get Hops?
This is a big question, and if you’ve read into this part of the hobby, you know that it’s not a quick turnaround kind of deal, but more like an investment that comes with an awesome looking plant.  While you will likely get a small hop harvest in your first year of growing, especially using the fertilization methods described a little further down in this article, you’re not looking at big returns for another year at least, and more likely two.  After that, you’ll have hops coming out of your ears and will have to enlist all of your brew buddies to help with the harvest every year!  This is always a good time when you mix in a fresh hop ale brew day!
Fresh Hop Harvest Ready on Trellis
Jason's Hop Trellis
Soil, Location and Fertilization
Since they’re a plant, it’s easy to surmise that you’ll want some pretty decent soil conditions.  You want to use a high quality potting mix or amend the soil where you want to plant them accordingly, if you really want to geek out. The most important part of the soil, though, is drainage.  Hops are easy to grow, but they really like to have plenty of air on their roots in between waterings, so make sure that your soil is well drained!  While grass and other plants are ok with lower oxygen levels and will do just fine in clay soil with a swampy watering regimen, hops prefer to dry out and breathe in between waterings.

As far as location, remember that hops grow fast.  Like crazy, a foot in 24 hours, you can almost watch a mature plant grow, fast.  This means that they need tons of energy, and a big part of that is sunlight, and about as much as you can give them.  Find a nice, southern facing, sun for most of the day, spot in your yard, and they’ll be perfectly happy.

Another important part of location is knowing how your hops are going to grow, and giving them the right environment to do that in.  Hops grow up, and they grow up quickly, and they need something that they can twine around as they reach up to the sky.

You’ll notice that your bines will only grow clockwise around whatever kind of trellis, string or support that you give them.  If you try to train them in a counter-clockwise direction, they will literally unwind themselves and fall to the ground until the new growth can wind itself properly!  They have small hairs on the vine part that help them stick to whatever they are growing up, but they seem to prefer organic material like wood and hemp string or something similar.  We usually stay away from wrought iron and other metal type trellises because the summer sun heats it up to the point that the new growth burns as it touches it, stopping the bine in its tracks

When in doubt, copy the big hop growers!  It’s pretty easy to put a pair of eight or ten foot 4x4’s in the garden, parallel to how the hops are growing, with a crossbeam that you can throw some twine over and anchor it in front the hop plant.  Check out Jason's hops above for reference!  This gives them something to climb, and allows easy cut down when harvest season and winter come around! 
  
When it comes to fertilization, it’s important to know what you’re looking for.  Every fertilizer that you buy will have three numbers posted on the box somewhere that will say something like 15 ᐧ 15 ᐧ 15.  These numbers mean
Nitrogen ᐧ Phosphorus ᐧ Potassium, always in that order.
  Nitrogen is what a plant uses for growth of leaves, bines, stalks, etc.  Phosphorus is used for root growth and root system development, while Potassium is used for fueling the flowers and fruit growth.  The other part of that tons of energy that hops need is nitrogen, so choose a high quality fertilizer with a high nitrogen number, and go organic if you can.  The numbers on organic fertilizer are WAY lower in most cases, but they pay dividends years down the road by helping support your soil and the microorganisms in the soil.
Growing Hops Almost Ripe Hop Cones for Fresh Hop Beer 
Phil's Hops Getting Close to Harvest
Proper Care and Feeding Year by Year
Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what to expect year by year, especially if you’re not an avid gardener, and sometimes even if you are, because hops are a wonderfully unique plant.  Luckily, enough people have been growing hops at home and commercially for years, and they’re a pretty predictable plant.

Year one is all about establishing roots.  While selecting certain bines to maximize the harvest is definitely a thing in later years, in the first year, don’t crop anything and stick to the basics:  fertilization, lots of sunlight, and well drained soil.  These are the real tenants to making sure that you get killer crops every year.  For the very first year (the year that you actually plant your rhizome), don’t worry too much about the hop harvest, and help your fresh plant put down roots!

The best way to help root development is by using a fertilizer with a moderate level nitrogen, heavy phosphorus and moderate to low potassium.  Use this for the entire first year, and if you have it available, try to stick to organic fertilizers. 
 
Year two is when the real fun begins.  It all starts after you see your hops start to break ground. Use a higher nitrogen fertilizer, still organic if you can swing it.  You’ll use this on your hops every other week for regular feedings from the time that they pop their heads up until you see them start to ‘spur’, or put out the beginning stages of actual hop flowers.

Give them a month or so to put out and establish substantial bines, then it’s time to choose your favorites, and cut the rest off.  For year two, try to go with 5 -7 bines because your hops are still building up their root system, and need a way to make energy to do that. 
 
Once you see them start to spur, and I assure you that it’s unmistakable because they put out short, lateral vines all the way up with little growths that actually look like spurs, it’s time to switch up your fertilizer.  Move to something that has a higher final number, potassium, to give them all the food that they need to make big, beautiful hop cones!  Continue with that until it’s time to harvest - more on how to know that below!

Year three, we’re into production and full of high expectations!  Stick with the high nitro fertilizer until they start to spur, middle to late July in most places and with most varieties, then move over to the higher potassium fertilizer to maximize those hop cones!  After a few weeks, you’ll be able to see the strongest bines, so choose 3 to 5 to be your producers and keep the rest trimmed so that your main bines get as many nutrients as possible funneled into them.
End of season care is pretty easy because hops die back to the roots every year.  This makes the harvest easy because you can literally just cut the whole thing down and pull of your hops.  Every year, come harvest and / or winter, just plan on cutting your plants down to kneed height.  This will give them a little bit of insulation as they over winter without losing the small amounts of energy that they will produce for the root system as they fall dormant  for the winter.
Harvesting Your Hops, Fresh Wet Hops Ready to Harvest
Phil's Hops Almost Harvest Ready
Harvesting Your Hops
Harvest time always comes sooner than expected, but keep in mind that different varieties mature at different rates.  Part of the beauty of hops is that they share a very important characteristic with their cousin, cannabis, and we can make tons of different varieties with different flavor profiles.  This means, too, that every plant goes at it’s own rate, and some varieties will be ready as early as late July, while others won’t be ready until September.  This is a normal phenomenon, so don't stress if your friends are harvesting Cascades while your Centennial is still ripening on the vines!

You’ll know it’s time to harvest because the actual hop cones will begin to change.  The cones themselves won’t be so springy and 'fresh' when you squeeze them, and will start to feel just a little bit dry.  If you cut them open horizontally, you’ll notice tons of little yellow almost dust, and these delicious resin centers are what we’re really trying to maximize, so don’t be afraid to pull 4 or 5 different cones from different parts of the plant and test them out by looking for visual signs of alpha acids and resins.

One of the easiest ways to know that it’s time to harvest your homegrown hops is by simple sight.  If you look at the picture of Phil's hops above, you'll see the bunch on the top is 25% to 33% touched by dry petals.  As you watch your own, you’ll notice that the yellow stripes on the sides become more prominent, and they’ll almost start to look like they’re drying out on the plant.  It’s a sign that it’s time to make a fresh wet hop beer! 
  Brewing with Wet Hops Ready for the Boil
Jason's Son Literally Ready to Empty a Bucket of Fresh Hops in the Kettle!
Brewing with Fresh Hops
If you’re like us, you want to get the full amount of flavor out of your hops.  For this reason, every time that we use freshly picked hops, always within a day or two of harvest, we try to maximize the hop flavor components by using them almost exclusively in the whirlpool and as dry hops.

A big part of the reason for this is that we don’t have the numbers or the lab work to know exactly what our acids and terpene levels are, even though we have a good idea based on what variety is growing, it’s easier to use a tried and true bittering variety, such as Magnum or CO2 Hop Extract, to achieve the exact bitterness we’re going for.  This eliminates the potential for under or over bittered beer, and makes the fresh hops the star of the show.

Brewing with wet hops is a little tricky vs using stored hops or professionally pelletized hops because they aren’t as concentrated, so you’ll be using way more than you really think is reasonable!  5 oz of fresh hops is equal to 1 oz of standard, T-90 pellet hops, so if you’re brewing your favorite IPA recipe, you’ll need to adjust your whirlpool and water additions accordingly.

You can plan on fresh hops absorbing a little less wort than standard, dried whole cone hops, which can be as much as a pint per ounce.  They have a way higher level of moisture, so they won’t absorb quite that much, but you’ll have 5X the amount of hops in there, so you’ll need to make sure you have enough water!

There’s no definitive how to use fresh hops, but this is our preferred method because it really puts our fresh homegrown as the spotlight of the beer.  Try a pale ale with about 26 calculated IBU’s, the add 20 ounces of your fresh hops in the whirlpool, and again as many as you can in the dry hop!  I know it sounds intense, but it’s SOOOO worth it!  Plan on more base grain or extract to account for the extra couple gallons of water that it will take to get 5.5 gallons into your fermenter!
Hops Flavor Waiting for the Food Dehydrator
How To Dry Homegrown Hops
The hop drying process may seem like a little bit of witchcraft, but it’s pretty easy, especially if you’re the homebrew DIY type!

The easiest method is probably a normal food dehydrator.  This way, even though it can take quite a while, all you have to do is set up your hops in single layers on each level of the dehydrator, and give the machine the time it needs to work!
  
For all of you that enjoy building projects, probably the coolest home drying apparatus that we’ve seen and heard of is a pretty simple build.  All you need are a few window screens built into stackable boxes and a box fan.  Simply spread out all of your hops in a single layer on each screen, stack up as many screened boxes as you have, and put the box fan on the bottom!  Put the whole drying machine in a warm, dry place, turn the fan on, and give them a few hours to dry out! 
 
This is kind of specialized, but maybe the most ingenious way I’ve seen it done is by laying out the harvest in a single layer on an air hockey table!  Talk about a multi purpose drying tool!  So if you have an air hockey table in your house, you’re good to go!!
Phils hop trellis, full of fresh wet hops ready to be vacuum sealed!
Phiil's Hop Trellis

Proper Hop Storage
If you are going to dry your harvest, you really want to make sure that you are storing your hops properly.  While many people do it, it’s not enough to pick them off the hop plant and just freeze them.  You are going to lose a ton of flavor and potency that way, so make sure that you are drying your fresh hops first, or putting them directly into your fresh hop harvest ale!

Seal them in usable, one or two ounce vacuum sealed packages to avoid opening and resealing over the course of your brew days.  This will help keep the harvest fresh except for what you are actively using.  Store all of the dried and vac-sealed bags in the freezer or deep freezer to ensure that you’re keeping as many of the acids and terpenes as possible.
Have a cool drying method or any advice for your fellow brewers?  Throw it up in the comments below!  We love to hear about homegrown hops and fresh hopped beers!  Post your pictures up on our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and make sure to follow us to keep up to date on everything homebrewing and BrewChatter!  Like and subscribe to BrewChatterTV on YouTube for fun livestreams, educational videos, product reviews and more! 
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Comments

R.J. - August 26, 2020

That is fabulous! Can’t wait to hear how the CTZ – Kveik Barleywine comes out! That is such a great idea!

Marc Tiar - August 24, 2020

I’m in over my head! My CTZ plant is about six years old and produces way more than I can stand. Too much to harvest, dry, store, or use. I don’t even like CTZ very much! Still, I love watching it come back and go gang busters every year. No fertilizer or anything, just regular water and tons of sun. It’s a beautiful sight. Since moving to small batches that are a little more expendable and can afford experimenting, I’m going to try an all-CTZ kveik barleywine tomorrow! First time using 100% backyard hops. Wish me luck!

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