Home-grown hops: Selection & cultivation

First of three parts

By Alan Moen

As I write this, my hop garden sits under a winter snowpack more than two feet deep. But the signs of Spring have returned to this mountain valley of Central Washington State, not far from the fabled hop region of Yakima. As the snow melts and sunny days lengthen, it's soon going to be time to tend to those hops.

Hops (humulus lupulus) are a perennial vine, and a very hardy one (mine survived last year's cold snap of 20 below zero F). They are both cold and heat-resistant; mine survived last year's four-day cold snap of 20 below zero F. Hops can even endure the occasional deluge. Ralph Olson, vice president of HopUnion USA in Yakima told me that following the record flooding there in 1996, he saw hopyards under seven feet of water recover quite nicely.

Although hops grow wild in many areas of the U.S., reflecting the once widespread industry of the past, it is today's cultivated varieties that are of interest to the brewer. Only the cones or "flowers' of the female plant that are used in beer ( My wife Susan Kidd, who is a papermaker, has made some beautiful paper from the outer or bast fibers of the vines, but that's another story.)

If you're planning to grow your own hops, chose your site carefully. The first thing you need is plenty of space: hops can grow more than a foot a day in the summer, and commercial vines are typically 18-21 feet tall. Besides vertical space, you'll also need fertile, well-drained soil ( with lots of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphates) and plenty of sunlight - around 120 frost-free days to allow for full flower production.

Hops are grown from rhizomes - lateral root sections which can be planted after the threat of frost has passed. This time will obviously vary considerably depending on where you live and what kind of winter you've had. If you have to delay the planting, hop rhizomes can be safely kept in plastic bags in a cool place (They can be refrigerated. Take care to avoid letting them dry out.) When you are ready to plant, place the rhizome in the ground horizontally, buds pointing up, and cover with several inches of soil. They should be planted at least three feet apart (5-6 ft. is better, especially for different varieties.) Mulch around the young vines and keep them well watered.

Wait until after the first shoots are a foot long or so before attaching them to something that will allow them to climb. I use sisal twine, which works very well, but rope or even a tall pole suffices (be sure that the surface is rough enough for the vines to cling to - they won't climb a smooth wire.) Now comes the hard part: select the three healthiest vines, and wind them clockwise (which is the way they will grow) around your support. Cut back all the rest (no matter how painful this is - otherwise you will wind up with a hop jungle!) You'll have to keep trimming these extra shoots all summer, at least every two weeks, to keep your vines in good shape. These can be composted, but the young white shoots (called jets d'houblon in Belgium) are tender and actually quite edible- a nice addition to salads should you be so inclined.

It's a good idea to grow both bittering and aromatic varieties of hops for brewing. In the first category, Nugget, Galena, or Chinook are good choices. Cascade, Willamette, Mt. Hood, or Saaz are good aroma varieties. Resistance to disease, length of growing season, and cone size varies considerably among hop varieties. A good reference is HopUnion USA's guide to domestic hop varieties (telephone 1-800-952-4873; or contact your local homebrew supplier for further information.

© 1997 Alan Moen