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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Growing Our Own Hops

One of the nice things about where I now live is that I have some room to experiment with things I have always wanted to try. One of those things is growing hops. Although from an historical perspective hops are a relative latecomer to the beer scene, they are now well established as a key ingredient for most brews.

Hops are a vine that can be propagated from rhizomes. Rhizomes are a root-like structure. All one needs to do is dig up the rhizomes (hops produce a lot of rhizomes) and cut them into lengths of about 4-6 inches. Plant them where they can get some sun and have something to climb. The book Homebrewer's Garden has some good information on hop growing.

I first planted hops two summers back, just in time for the shortage. I bought rhizomes from an online dealer and got them started indoors. They did well and I transplanted them in late April. Since they were small rhizomes, the first year they only got about 3 feet tall and produced no cones.

The second year, the plants grew with amazing rapidity. My trellis is 13.5 feet tall. The plants topped out in 9 weeks. The biggest problem I experienced was a potassium deficiency which I mistook for verticulum wilt at first. A bit of potash cleared things up.

So far I have tried growing Cascade, Willamette, and Mount Hood hops. The survival to second year has been 50%, 100% and 10%, respectively. Cause of death appeared to be the rhizomes rotting. An interesting thing about hops is that they exhibit quite a bit of variation in leaf morphology, yet I am not aware of any method for identifying varieties based on the appearance of the leaves.

The harvest went well. It can actually be fun getting up on the ladder and picking the hops with the smell of fresh hops all around. I dried the cones by spreading them on large window screens under an awning. This kept the sun off and allowed air to circulate. The drying process took about 24 hours in good weather. Given that it takes three to five years for a hop plant to reach its full potential, I look forward to increasing harvests.

I have now brewed a few beers with my own hops. Since I had no way of knowing the alpha acid content (it is highly variable) and the yield of cones was small, I mixed all the hops together for brewing. The results have been excellent. The flavor is a subdued, spicy earthiness with a mild bitterness.

Our first harvest!

1 comment:

  1. Those look like thriving hop cones there! My fellow homebrewing friend at school, Eric, found a stray hop vine on a bike path in Providence. We took a trip back, harvested pretty much all the hops from the monster 20-ft vine, and used it in a pale ale and an oatmeal stout. They both came out quite good, the pale showing a great, earthy, fruity hop character, though less bitter than we'd hoped for. We stuck the rest of the harvest in the freezer, though I can't imagine them to be all that fresh now. Anyway, cheers to local sourcing!