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Sep 30, 2014

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Hop growing

By Gregg Smith

It's the time when a homebrewer's fancy turns to something other than brewing. Spring brings warm weather and for many the season when brewing ends. Sadly, supplies of home brew dwindle into a shrunken shadow of the imposing stockpile produced during the winter. In the next installment we'll investigate techniques to thwart the evil warmth of summer, but for now let's talk about another brewing related activity while the timing's right. It's the beer version of the victory garden - - hop growing.

Cultivating hops is part of our heritage. Back when the colonial women watched the brewpot they also secured supplies of hops. Early in the colonies hop plants grew wild in the North American woods, but as the population grew the natural supply was quickly exhausted. People resorted to purchasing expensive imported hops, or like Martha Jefferson sometimes ran across a deal like the time she traded one of Tom's shirts for a sack of hops. Still others used substitute preservatives for the then scarce hops, employing things like spruce essence. But to many beer just wasn't the same with ersatz hops and they took to the patriotic past time of growing their own. Many an illustration of frontier cabins shows hops growing up and over the walls.

Starting your hop garden is now easy as telephoning your local home brew shop. Shops have ready access to supplies of hop plants through wholesalers like Crosby and Baker which sells thousands every year. Be sure to place your order early, in the past local shops have been known to run out.

If you order your hops by mail don't become unsettled by the small size package you receive; remember the mighty oak from a single acorn grows. Though your hops won't develop oak tree proportions they will grow remarkably fast. So now that you're prepared not to receive a potted plant what exactly do you get? Well, ever see your grandma order bulbs from the catalog? What you'll get is similar, it's a rootlet called a rhizome. Commonly the little nubbin is a couple of inches long and of three eighths inch diameter. Sweep your gaze along its length looking for small bud- like protrusions and remember what they look like. It'll come in handy when you eventually propagate more plants.

When the earth warms and the frosts go away you can start playing hop rancher. Yes, in the western United States where the majority of hops are grown the owners refer to themselves as ranchers. Dig a little garden, or if you're in the city prepare a window box as you would for any other plants. Place the rhizomes in a couple inches of soil and place them in a nice sunny spot where there's room for vertical growth of 12 to 20 feet. Some people don't have that kind of room so they train them along a trellis, or string them along the underside of their balcony or eve. Still others erect poles with networks of string running down from overhead wires just like commercial growers, or they drop a line down from a second story gutter. The height isn't as important as supplying the room for a plant to stretch out to its full length.

When the plant first appears there'll be small shoots popping out from the rootlet's bed of soil, up to a couple dozen will appear. From each rhizome select two of the healthiest looking shoots as your vine to be and cut the remainder off at the ground. If you feel very Belgian that day try double boiling the cuttings (boil, drain, boil again, drain) and then serve with fresh butter.

A warning, your first year the vines will grow tall but usually won't produce many hops flowers. This is normal. First year hop plants expend most of their energy establishing root systems. Whatever your harvest prepare the vines for a winter nap by cutting them off a couple inches above ground level, then cover them with some loose earth.

Once the plants are mature you can propagate more in the spring. Wait till the point when the weather is still cold but the ground is no longer frozen. Gently brush away the dirt until a root is found growing horizontally out from the central plant. When you find one think back to what the rhizome looked like at planting time. This is the time to play plant doctor. Find a section of the same size and bud- like swelling. Cut off the root about two inches to either side of the buds, remove it, place it in a plastic bag and store it in the refrigerator. Plant the second generation in the same manner as with your first hop crop.

The second season is the period plants really start producing. Care for them as you did the previous year once again keeping the two best looking shoots. As this second summer goes by the vines will produce flowers, which are the hops cones you'll use in brewing.

Think it's impossible to grow hops in New York City? Don't tell that to Garrett Oliver of Manhattan Brewing Company. He grew his own and though his Cascade plants yielded little the first year he harvested a bumper crop the next. That second August found him deep in hops and part of this bounty made it beyond his homebrew kettle to Manhattan's beer.

New hop growers can benefit from Garrett's experience by following a few easy steps. Use a pole stuck in the ground for the first 6 to 7 feet of the vines growth. From there on up attach twine up to a total height of 18 to 20 feet. Humus soil is the best with high nitrogen fertilizer. Water the plants daily in hot weather. Insects don't appear to be a problem but beware of hungry squirrels. At harvest Garrett dried the hops by wrapping the cones in a sheet and placing them in the sun. Keeping an eye on them and waiting until they were springy, but not moist, he reached a sufficient level of drying. Caution: not drying can lead to rot and mildew.

Imagine sitting on your porch shaded by these prolific vines. You pop open a beer and casually inform your friends it's your effort to get back to your colonial roots. Later that summer you proudly survey the vast reaches of your hop ranch, cone laden plants slowly undulating in the breeze as you day dream about the next winter and how great they'll be in your brew pot.

Watch for the next installment when you learn how to forestall the end of the brew season and gain a reprieve for your fermenter. See you next time in the cellar, and if you don't have one you'll learn how to fake it.

Gregg Smith

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