The hop harvest is over for the year, and any wet-hopped beers on tap will soon be depleted. But with proper preparation, by this time next year, that pale ale with freshly harvested hops could be on your tap at home.
Planting, training, watering, and harvesting hops is a lot of work. But for homebrewers chasing a unique flavor profile, there is nothing like a fresh-hopped beer. Plus, hop growers only need to build their trellis system once. Hops are a perennial plant that will sprout again and again, and the bines can be trained on the same system each year.
“Oh, fresh-hopped Centennial!” Annie Johnson, hop grower and 2013 Homebrewer of the Year, says of her hand-harvested Centennial ales. “To me, they’re just the best.”
Here’s what the first year of growing your own hops will look like, from planning a trellis, to planting rhizomes, and, finally, harvesting hops for a fresh-hopped brew day.
October to February: Plan, Prepare & Pick
Winter is the growing “off season” for hops, but there is still plenty to do to prepare for spring. First time growers need to find or create an area that can support hops’ growth. Sunlight is essential; without six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day, the hops may not flower. While hops can grow in large outdoor pots, the roots grow from 15 to as much as 20 feet deep. Because the roots will be restricted, potted hop plants won’t flourish as much as they would if they were planted in the ground.
Even in less-than ideal conditions or climates, hop bines will grow well over 15 feet tall. That kind of height needs a support system, called a trellis. This is usually built out of twine or wires. Professional brewers use an organic twine called coir that is made from coconut fibers on their trellises. Coir is also available to homebrewers through online retailers, but Johnson cautions being aware of regional wildlife before ordering. “I was putting it [the trellis] upright when all the dang birds were nesting. And they kept nabbing pieces,” she says. “I would come outside and the whole thing [trellis] would be destroyed.” One of the benefits of coir is that it is all-natural and compostable, but that also makes it more vulnerable to birds and other creatures. Johnson says after switching to synthetic twine, she never ran into a wildlife issue again.
For brewers who don’t want to spend harvest season climbing ladders, horizontal growing, or some kind of pulley system, is recommended. Rusty Burrell, a software engineer and homebrewer of more than eight years, has had a few different setups through the years, and suggests people check out the web and YouTube to find the right system to suit their needs.
Yes, 20 feet is a lot of space, but with the option to grow horizontally or vertically, most outdoor spaces are able to support a hop garden. Daniel van Dijk, a bar owner based in Louisville, Ky., who has been homebrewing for 12 years, has advice to anyone starting out growing hops: “Build a trellis that seems extreme — if you can, make it 25 feet tall.”
March to April: Plant Rhizomes and Watch Them Sprout
Hop rhizomes (a rootstock that is planted to grow hops, as opposed to seeds) will become available for shipping online around March. Johnson, who has more than a decade of growing experience, says American hops like Cascade and Centennial have been hardier and easier to manage than German hop varieties. Burrell agrees, adding Chinook as another good choice for first-time growers.
When it comes to how many rhizomes to order, Burrell suggests aiming high: “Plant several [rhizomes]” he says, “sometimes they never come up.”
The rhizomes should be planted in spring, when there is no danger of frost. It is imperative that rhizomes are planted in a way that allows for good drainage. Hops are very prone to root rot when they are exposed to any quantity of standing water. Soil should be broken until very loose, and if there is any chance for poor drainage, brewers should build a small hill or mound of soil and plant the rhizome in that. (Essentially, the rhizome will be at about ground level with four to five inches of soil hand packed on top of it.)
Unlike other sprouts, a rhizome should be planted horizontally, with what may look like white knobs (the beginning of a sprout!) facing up and root shoots facing down. In one to three weeks, the rhizome will sprout.
April to May: Select and Train Shoots
Once shoots are about six inches long, it is time to train them on their assigned wire. Only four to six shoots should be trained per rhizome. Select the ones that look the healthiest and trim back any other shoots. “Mine start to sprout in April,” says Johnson, “then I get them trained before they have a huge growth spurt.”
Training is simple: Gently wrap the growing bine clockwise around the twine from the trellis. Hops want to grow this way naturally, so they will usually grab on and start to grow up the twine within a few days. Wind or other weather can knock bines off the trellis, so come back every day and train the plant onto the twine until it stays.
June to August: Water and Watch
From late June through harvest in August or September, “I’ll be watering them every day. They [hops] take copious amounts of water,” Johnson says.
Every growing region is different, so watch plants closely and avoid over-watering. Start with less water than you think they need, and water only as soil dries.
During this time hops grow visibly each day, eventually reaching heights of 18 feet, or more if there is more space to climb. It’s amazing to see, but daunting when one considers harvesting cones from hundreds of feet of bine.
August to September: Harvest and Homebrewing
Hops are ready to be harvested when the leaves feel “dry, but not too dry,” usually in late August or September, according to Johnson. Her trick for knowing it’s time to pick is listening for the sound of “crepe paper crunching when you hold them up to your ear.”
Don’t rush into harvest. If the cones are not ready, they will impart more grassy and vegetal notes in beer without the desirable essential-oil-driven flavors. “Treat them with respect and realize that they will be ready when they are ready,” says Van Dijk. “Plants don’t grow on your schedule.”
Harvesting is an all-day event, and a good opportunity to invite friends interested in homebrewing or members of a homebrew club. That’s because it’s not just picking the hops, but also brewing with them that should occur at the harvest. (For tips on brewing that fresh-hopped beer, check out last month’s Brew it Yourself.) Tell everyone attending to wear long sleeves for harvesting, even if it’s warm out. “Hops are brutal on the flesh,” says Van Dijk.
If you need to cut the bines to harvest the cones, make sure to leave at least three feet of bine at the bottom of the plant. This will support the roots for growing next year.
September to October: Prepare for Winter
Hops are a plant that keep on giving. Yields will be lowest in the first year, increase the second year, and by the third harvest, they’ll be robust. There are a few easy steps to take to set the plant up for a successful next season.
Leave three to four feet of bine on the trellis until the first frost or leaves begin to fall off. Then cut the bine to about four inches in length. Remove any remaining plant from the trellis. Cover the plant with four or five inches of mulch or hay. If you experience very harsh winters, consider covering the plant with plastic tarp; although it is less attractive, it is more effective for retaining warmth.
Hops are capable of surviving ground freezes, so as long as they are covered when frosts hit, they will sprout again the following spring.