Home-grown hops: Harvesting and storage

Last of three parts

By Alan Moen

You've done your homework: your backyard hop vines are now 18 feet tall. free of disease and pests, and laden with lots of beautiful green cones. As summer turns toward fall , it's time to think about harvesting your crop. But how can you tell when the hops are ready to pick?

There's probably a scientific answer, but the easiest test might well be called the"rule of thumb." Pluck off a few of the cones. If they still feel soft and damp to the touch, it's too early to harvest. The flowers will be ready when they begin to feel dry and papery. Rub them at their stem end between your fingers; when the cones are ripe, the sticky yellow lupulin should be obvious.

And don't forget to smell your hops. If they still have a grassy or vegetal scent, don't harvest them. Wait until the crushed flowers exhibit a clean hop aroma.

When you harvest your hops, be aware that the stems and leaves can be very irritating to the skin, so be sure to wear gloves. You can pick your hops from a ladder, but the easiest way is to cut the vines down a few feet above the ground (I have mine attached to hooks at the top, so they can be easily dropped for picking.) Separate the cones into a basket or pail, keeping them as free from stems or leaves as possible. You may find it hard to believe how many you get off a single vine! Bear in mind, however, that the volume and weight of the hops will be much less once they are properly dried.

There are many ways to dry your hops. I've used a food dehydrator successfully (keeping it at the lowest setting), but you can also air-dry them on window screening. Some homebrewers use a hair dryer setup beneath frames with screening set up in a cabinet like drawers. You will need to dry them to about 10% moisture or less (the commercial standard), which is practically impossible for the amateur to measure. If they still feel moist, they're too wet and can cause growth of molds and other bacteria in storage. Avoid browning the hops from using excessive heat or sunlight, and turn them frequently for even drying.

Hop aroma and bitterness will degenerate quickly when the flowers are exposed to oxygen and warm temperatures (depending also on variety), so aim for efficiency in this process. These same factors are crucial for storing your hops. They should be packed in airtight plastic bags (a vacuum sealer is handy) and stored in a freezer. Oxygen barrier bags (polyester outside, polyethylene inside) or mylar bags are best. The standard Zip-lock type bags (doubled up) will work for short-term storage, but compress the dried flowers as much as possible to push excess air from the bags before sealing them, and tape them shut. It's a good idea to put you hops into bags in amounts you will be using for your normal brewing additions; huge gallon-size bags, which can hold up to a pound, will have to be opened many times, exposing the hops needlessly to oxygen. And don't forget to label the bags! (It's amazing how similar different varieties can look when they're all packaged up.) I've found that the best way to do this is to put a label INSIDE the bag - even writing from a permanent marker can smear or become illegible, especially if there is excess moisture or ice in your freezer.

Happy hopping! For more technical information on all aspects of hops for the homebrewer, I recommend "Using Hops" by Mark Garetz (Danville, CA. 1994.)

© 1997 Alan Moen