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 (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
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;email@example.com) or
contact your local homebrew supplier for further information.
© 1997 Alan Moen