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Question: : How do I grow hops?
Answer: Growing hops can be a fun way to get outdoors this summer. With
a couple of plants, you can grow all the hops your homebrew will need. In the
meantime, they'll be a pleasant herbal addition to your back yard. To see what
you're in for, check out my hop garden at: http://www.picobrewery.com/hopgardn.html.
Hops grow from root cuttings known as rhizomes. They are perennial, so once they get started, they'll come back year after year. You can buy rhizomes at the shop, or you can get them mail order. Hop plants have distinct male or female characteristics. Hop cones, the part that is used in brewing, only come from the female plants. Whenever you buy rhizomes, you can rest assured that they are female. Unless you come across some native hop plants, male plants are generally only found at agricultural breeding facilities. Commercial hop growers (and homebrewers) generally don't want the hop cones to be fertilized, so the males are rooted out.
The first thing to do is plan out your growing space. Hop plants are tall climbing vines. They'll need a tall trellis to be able to do their thing. Plan on allowing sixteen feet upwards at least, and 20 feet if room is available. The plants will need to be spaced about 5 feet apart. I've discovered that my garden, with plants at three-foot intervals, suffers from root competition. Also, with time, the rhizomes start to spread laterally. If they are too close together, they can get mixed up, so you won't know which is which.
Before you plant, you should build your trellis. Hops like lots of sun, so pick a place accordingly. The easiest thing to do is use a tall south-facing wall and put up some stringer-hooks, like they did at the shop. Craig Corley built his trellis using his garage as a base. I didn't have a good south wall, so I built a free-standing frame out of sixteen-foot
2 x 4's. The vines climb up strings, which I secure with hooks. I arranged the strings so that at harvest time, I can lower the vines down.
Hops like soil that is fairly light and well-drained. Typically, making some small hills help with the drainage. They also need plenty of fertilizer. Garden-variety potting soil works pretty good.
The next thing to do is select the type of rhizome you want. The modern American hybrids such as Cascade and Nugget tend to grow the best in Southern California. I haven't had much luck with the traditional English or German varieties. I suspect part of the reason is that they came from more northerly latitudes, where the summer days are longer. For variety, I recommend that you select a mix of bittering and a flavoring hops. One plant will produce all you need of a given type for a year, so use your space for variety, rather than quantity.
The time to plant is now. Rhizomes naturally send up fresh shoots in March. Make sure the soil is well spaded. Dig a hole a bit deeper than the length of the rhizome. When you get your rhizomes, look for the white growths. These will be the shoots, so point these up. Gently pack soil around the rhizome, so that the shoots are about an inch below ground. Keep the soil well moistened for the first month or two. The roots are fairly fragile for a while, so they are prone to dryness.
For well-established plants, hops will reach a few feet tall by April. Make sure the shoots find a string to climb on. They'll continue to spiral upward as long as the strings are close to vertical. In May, they rocket upwards several inches in a day! They tend to reach the top of the trellis in June. About that time, they start producing cones. A healthy vibrant plant will produce some cones the first year. However, many do not, so don't be disappointed if your first year is a bust. The cones will be ripe in July and August. By September, they'll be done, and starting to pull back for winter. The energy in the vines gets sucked back into the rhizome, so leave the dying vines intact until the stems are fully dried and brittle.
In their second year, the rhizomes tend to send out large number of shoots. For best yield, you want to cut most of these off, leaving about four to eight shoots per rhizome. This will allow the plant to focus its energy into cone production. A modest yield will be half a pound. A strong producer will yield well over a pound.
Assuming your plants do well, you'll have to harvest, dry and package the cones. You'll also have to estimate their bittering content. I'll cover that in an article later this summer.