w Brew Butler - Growing your own hops

Brew Butler's guide to growing hops

To grow hops, you don't need a green thumb, you'll save a little money and it's one more ingredient you'll have complete control over in your homebrew. And it's fun to grow your own.

Where to start

With more than 120 varieties of hops currently available, you’ll need to decide which variety to plant. Ask yourself these questions: What varieties do I like to brew with? What varieties will grow best in my location? Where do I get rhizomes? What sort of yield do I want?
Once you’ve chosen your desired varieties, many breweries, homebrew shops and nurseries have rhizomes to purchase. Try to source them locally if possible in order to have a better understanding on the plant’s history, performance and known diseases. Store slightly moistened rhizomes in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until you are ready to plant.

Where to plant

You can start scoping out possible sites for your hops now. If you’re still enjoying a mild fall, you can even begin some ground preparation. Choose a south-facing location that receives plenty of daytime sunlight, ideally one that is slightly elevated and drains well.
Come spring, place rhizomes of the same variety about 3 feet (1 meter) apart and keep different cultivars at least 6 feet (2 meters) from one another. Bury each rhizome about 6–12 inches (15–30 cm) deep, oriented horizontally.
Since hop plants can live 25-50 years, planning their grow space is crucial. They’ll need plenty of climbing space in a sunny location (south facing is ideal), with well-draining soil.
To prevent scorching, try to find a place that provides some shade during the hotter hours of the afternoon. Hops climb clockwise up a support system by using tiny hairs. To support the hop bines, you’ll need to use string (e.g. hemp, wire, fencing and netting) that will allow the hop to shoot upwards. Many homebrewers run string down from the roof of their house, build a homemade trellis or build a metal or wood framework for the hops to climb on.
For the horizontal approach, run the bine up eight to 10 feet then take it horizontally along another twine or support for eight to 10 more feet. You can use this hop canopy as a shade-producing element for a beer garden—a nice place to enjoy a homebrew and view your hops! Make sure to carefully monitor the bines from reaching over to other plants.
Planting months vary from region to region. Do a little research as to what time is best for where you live

Taking care of hops

Your goal is to provide enough water to help the plant establish its roots, but not so much that the rhizomes start to rot. Once the first shoots break the surface of the soil (2–4 weeks after planting), things will start moving quickly—it’s not uncommon for plants to grow up to a foot (30 cm) per day at the height of summer!
The older the plant, the less frequent the watering. In areas where irrigation is necessary, never apply overhead water such as a sprinkler system. This will create a moist environment that is disease prone. A drip irrigation system is the most water-efficient method.
Hops prefer to grow vertically. Effective support methods range from simple lengths of sturdy twine to sophisticated trellis systems. Just make sure that whatever you choose is strong enough to hold a full-grown, heavy plant: Commercial hops farms feature trellises as tall as 20 feet (6 meters).

Common Diseases & Pests

Downy Mildew
It’s caused by the fungus Pseudoperonospora humuli. It will first appear in the spring as infected shoots emerge. Infected shoots will look stunted, brittle and lighter in color and are unable to climb. Flowers often become infected when blooming occurs during wet weather and young cones stop growing and turn brown. Roots and crowns may be completely rotted and destroyed. Remedy: Remove and burn infected tissues, sulfur-based fungicides.
Powdery Mildew
Caused by the fungus Podosphaera macularis and is a major problem in the Pacific Northwest. First appears as powdery white colonies on leaves, buds, stems and cones. Infected cones become reddish-brown as tissues die. Under cloudy, humid conditions the fungus can complete its life cycle in as little as five days. Remedy: Remove and burn infected tissues, sulfur-based fungicides.
Verticillium Wilt
Caused by two related fungi, and the nonlethal strain is more common in the Pacific Northwest. The lethal strains cause rapid death of leaves, side arms and the plant itself. Symptoms on the nonlethal variety include yellow veining of the leaves and wilting of leaves and vines. Remedy: Remove and burn infected tissues, sulfur-based fungicides.
Hop Stunt Viroid
Cub-viral pathogen does just what its name imples: stunts the growth of the plants and can reduce alpha acid yield by as much as 60 to 80 percent per acre. Symptoms of infection may not appear for three to five growing seasons, which increase the danger of the propagation and distribution of infected plants. It is viewed as an increasing threat.
Hop Aphid
The hop aphid causes the most damage by feeding on developing cones, which turn brown. It secretes large amounts of sugary honeydew that causes a sooty mold fungi on leaves and cones, reducing productivity. It may also transmit plant viruses. Remedy: Lady bugs or insecticidal soaps.
Spider Mites
Spider mites also suck plant juices from cells. A minor infestation causes bronze leaves, while a severe one results in defoliation and white webs. Spider mites are most dangerous during warm, dry weather and no usually a problem for well watered plants. Remedy: Phytoseiulus persimilis (predatory mite) or insecticidal soaps.

Harvest Time

By late August or early September, the cones will lighten in color and begin to dry and feel papery. These visual and tactile clues are your indication that it’s time to harvest, though a more scientific approach is to conduct a dry matter test.
There are a few methods to check ripeness of your hops. Give the cones a light squeeze occasionally and when they feel light and dry, and spring back after a squeeze, they’re ready. Pick a cone, roll it in your hands and smell it. If it has a pungent smell between cut grass and onion, it’s time to harvest. Roll the hop next to your ear. If it makes a cricket sound, this also means they’re ready to harvest. If the lupulin turns orange and smells rancid, you’ve overshot your window. For first year bines, try to pick the cones and not cut down the bine until it dies off. This will lend necessary nutrients back to the roots for the winter. For following years, cut the bine down and be careful not to damage or dirty those precious lupulin glands. You should expect one to two pounds of dried hops per mature plant.
Once you’ve made the decision to harvest, simply snip the top of the twine that the plant has climbed and lay the bine flat on the ground (if your hops grow on a trellis, you can leave the bines in place as you harvest the cones). Pick the cones from the bine and either use them straight away (within 24 hours) in a wet-hopped beer or dry them for future use. Leave the bines attached to the plant until the first frost, then cut the plants about a foot (30 cm) above the ground and discard the bines in preparation for winter.

Drying Hops

Freshly-picked hops can either go directly into the kettle for a fresh hop brew or onto a drying process. There are three factors you’ll want to remember when drying hops: time, heat and moisture.
To prevent oxidation and isomerization, drying shouldn’t last more than three days. You can speed up drying by putting them in the oven, watching closely by checking on them every 20 minutes. The heat you use should never exceed 140° F.
You can also use a drying screen to dry your hops. Place landscape fabric over the top to keep them in the dark and occasionally fluff the hops so moist inner cones are brought to the outside of the pile. Use a fan to expedite the process.
The hops need a moisture content of eight to 10 percent by weight to prevent molding. A quick method to see if they’re dry enough is if the central stem of the cone is almost brittle enough to snap in half. Once the hops are dried, vacuum seal a bag and properly store them in the freezer.