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
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
Happy hopping! For more technical information on all aspects of hops for
the homebrewer, I recommend "Using Hops" by Mark Garetz (Danville, CA.
© 1997 Alan Moen