“Fresh from the vine” is not a phrase usually associated with home-brewed beer. But grow your own hops, and you can claim just that.
In the garden, hops are fast-growing, perennial vines that can soar 20 feet tall in a flash. They’re also exceedingly deciduous, dying to the ground and vanishing each winter.
But in late summer or early fall, their female, cone-shaped flowers grow plump with lupulin — yellow, pollen-like granules — that preserve and add aroma and flavor to beer. The lime-green cones look similar to ornamental oregano and are quite pretty, even if you never harvest them.
Because beer-making is a year-round industry and fresh hops are available only during a slim window, brewers most often use bales of compressed, dried hops. But with craft beer enjoying immense popularity, some artisanal brewers have begun creating specialty “harvest” beers with wet or fresh hops.
Typically, wet hops go straight from the field to a brewpot within 24 hours, while fresh hops are dried, then used within a week. Either way, the idea is to capture clean, bright, grassy or floral aromas. Locally, the sweet spot for picking is August or early September. Further north, into Oregon and Washington, harvests may be as late as October.
Hops need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day.
They also need very tall structures to support their exuberant growth. Commercial growers construct elaborate networks of cables for the vines to clamber. In Buellton, Bob and Colt Blokdyk at Windmill Nursery grow Cascade and Nugget hops on their suitably convenient, landmark windmill.
However at home, heavy-duty twine attached to a south-facing chimney or flat, two-story wall will do.
Or use poles. In my garden, I pounded 12-foot-tall, round tree stakes 2 feet into the ground this past spring, to support new plantings of Cascade, Centennial, Liberty and Nugget hops. If all goes well, I’ll add extensions next year.
In addition, hops like loose, fertile soil. My garden sports heavy clay, so I dug holes 2 feet wide and 18 inches deep, worked in 6 inches of compost to improve the drainage and provide plenty of readily available nutrients, then mounded the mix so that each of my rhizomes had its own mini raised bed.
I finished by shaping basins around each, then began watering daily, as hops prefer consistent moisture, especially early on.
The first sprouts appear like wild, rambling berries, with each leaf a dark green, pleated and rounded at the base and pointed at the tip.
Then fairly quickly, the elongating stems exhibit twisting, twining characteristics, and up and out they go.
Once the stems are about a foot long, select the strongest two or three and use stretchy green garden tape to attach them to their supports, wrapping them in the clockwise pattern that they’re programmed to grow.
Snip off any remaining sprouts to encourage the plants to put all their energy into just a few vines, rather than many.
As the vines grow broader and taller, they’ll begin to shade their own roots and you can taper off watering. Just don’t let the soil dry out completely.
An inch or two of organic mulch will retain moisture longer.
Harvest & Beyond
Several weeks after the cones form, start checking the lupulin glands, which are hidden at the base of each overlapping scale. When the glands begin to swell and produce a strong fragrance, it’s time to harvest. To make sure, roll a few cones between your fingers to see if they release the powdery yellow lupulin along with an intense aroma. The cones should feel a little dry, make a slight rustle in the breeze and may even be turning light brown at their tips.
Ideally, you should harvest individual hops as they ripen. But given that they’re intertwined with trailing stems and leaves that are busy scaling trellises or poles that are 15 to 20 feet tall, that may be rather impractical. Instead, yank down the vines and snip off the hops by hand. Chop up the stems and leaves, then toss them in a compost pile or use them as mulch.
Don’t get discouraged if your vines produce only a few dozen cones the first year. Yield will pick up the second year. By the third year, you should see peak production.
Add wet hops within moments of harvest to a batch of home brew that you’re already started. Or dry the hops for later use. Air drying is easy enough. Spread a layer of hops up to 6 inches thick on a window screen. Place it in a shady spot, out of the sun.
Fluff the hops daily to tease out the moisture. Once the cones are dry — which should take a week or two — pack them into heavy plastic storage bags. Store the bags in your freezer.
In early spring, just before your hops break dormancy, pull away the soil from their crowns and cut off any advancing roots or runners. Also continue to limit each plant to two or three vines when they sprout.
Do this faithfully every year. Otherwise, as your hops gain vigor, they may engulf your garden. Then add fresh compost to the soil mix and fresh mulch on top, and check that your trellising system is sturdy enough for another year.
Although the first year’s growth may appear puny, mature plants bearing ripe hops can weigh 20 pounds or more, which can easily snap thin twine or topple skinny poles. Mature plants also bear the equivalent of up to two pounds of dried hops. Just a few plants should produce enough to brew several very nice batches of beer. Cheers!
Seeds of Wisdom: Other Uses and a Warning
Aside from making beer, hops are a traditional herbal remedy and have been used for centuries as a sleeping aid and to treat restlessness. You can stuff a pillow with dried cones or brew a teaspoon or two of crushed hops for tea. Some folks even eat the fresh, spring sprouts like asparagus, which is an interesting approach to controlling the number of vines per plant.
But also note that handling the hairy vines can cause dermatitis, so you might wear gloves. Worse, hops are toxic to dogs and in certain cases have proved fatal.
This article was first published in the Fall 2013 issue of Edible Santa Barbara.
Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.