I am growing multiple varieties of hops at my home in Southern New Jersey. How do I use them, green or dried and will they have the same profile as commercially grown varieties? Several from last year are at least 20 feet (~6 m) tall already and flowering so your rapid response would be appreciated. This year’s rhizomes are about 5 feet (1.5 m) tall and will probably be at least 10-15 feet (3-4.5 m) as were the first year rhizomes last year.
Gerald, I went to the World Brewing Congress that was held in Portland Oregon during the first week of August. This meeting began with some pre-conference activities and I was fortunate to join up with a group that visited Oregon State University in Corvallis. During our visit at OSU we saw experimental hop plots grown by scientists at OSU and scientists with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service group that is embedded in the OSU campus. After our visit at OSU we traveled to a hop farm that had about 200 acres of Nugget and Tettnanger planted.
The history of hop growing is replete with stories of disease and pests. Indeed, New York State was a prolific hop growing region in the US during the 19th century and into the early 20th century, producing about 90% of the US hop crop. Molds, aphids and Prohibition created the perfect storm and hop growing in this part of the country all but vanished. Following Prohibition US hop production became a westward endeavor and the major hop growing regions were found in California, Oregon, Washington and parts of Idaho. Today the entirety of the US hop crop is concentrated in Washington, Idaho and Oregon. There is a very real interest in local hop production and new hop yards are popping up all across the US.
The bottom line with hop growing is that you must have healthy plants to produce hop cones that we want to use in the brewery. Most of the emphasis that I saw during my brief visit in Oregon was related to developing varieties that are resistant to powdery and downy mildews and controlling hop aphids. Climate is a big factor in influencing the growth and spread of these problems. The good news is that you live in the “hop belt” extending from about 35-50 degrees latitude, although most of the world’s hop crop is grown in latitudes greater than 40 degrees.
OK, so what does it mean to have hops with commercially grown qualities? For starters, commercially grown hops are normally kilned and packaged into compressed bales. Baled hops have much better storage properties than loose hops, and without good storage properties commercially processed hops are not much use to brewers. Baled hops are often pelletized after harvest, and this is accomplished by milling the hops and compressing into the familiar hop pellet.
Homegrown hops are very unlikely to be baled or pelletized unless you happen to live next door to a hop processor, and considering you live in New Jersey this is most certainly not the case. Many homegrown hops are used “wet” right after harvest to brew beers with the wonderful aroma of fresh hops. If your hops are healthy then you should be able to produce beers with wet hops that are really not too different from commercially grown hops. There are too many caveats to count with this statement because hop growing is not easy and it takes more than land and rhizomes to produce healthy hop plants that yield good cones.
If you want to store your homegrown hops then you must kiln the freshly harvested hops to remove moisture. This is really not that difficult to do if you have the right equipment. Hop kilns are similar to large food dehydrators . . . sort of similar. They consist of a holding box with an open bottom permitting the flow of warm, dry air into the kiln. While air temperature for kilning varies, a typical kiln operates at about 120 °F (49 °C), with total drying times of about six hours. After kilning the hops are allowed to rest for about 12 to 24 hours before compressing into bales. This is where what you do at home is probably going to be a bit different from commercial hop growers. A good option for the home hop grower is the use of a vacuum bagging system to help preserve hops for storage and future use. Good luck with the fruits of your vines!
When cold crashing, how do you prevent the airlock/blow off liquid from going into your beer?
You asked me “how I prevent” suck-back from occurring during cooling of the fermenter. In our operation at Springfield Brewing Company we use blow-off buckets for airlocks and the vertical distance from the top of the tank to the airlock down at the floor level is too high for suck-back to occur, even if the tank were under full vacuum, or roughly 29 inches (74 cm) of water column. Suck-back is a real problem in carboys equipped with airlocks and happens when the gas in the headspace of the fermenter is cooled. When this happens the volume of the gas is reduced, thus creating a vacuum.
In our brewery we usually build up pressure in our fermenters before fermentation ends by capping the fermenter with a special type of pressure relief valve called a spunding or bunging valve. If the tank has not been spunded, we increase the head pressure with carbon dioxide gas before cooling because vacuum in stainless steel tanks can cause problems if for whatever reason the vacuum relief valve fails to operate properly. For this reason most commercial brewers are very careful about avoiding vacuum situations.
Pressurizing a carboy is not something that should be considered, unless you are day-dreaming about things NOT to do in the homebrewery, since they are not rated for pressure. The method that I prefer using when fermenting in a carboy is to remove the airlock before cooling and to replace it with a clean cotton wad. The best type of cotton to use comes in rolls and can be purchased at medical supply stores. The cotton batting acts as a filter as air flows through it and into the carboy during cooling. Once the beer is cool you can replace the airlock.
There are some brewers who are really paranoid about methods like this that seem crude. I have never thought anything crude about this method because of the common use of cotton plugs in microbiology classes I took while in school. It’s also a bit comforting to see test-tubes with cotton plugs shown in historical pictures taken of the labs of famous microbiologists, like Pasteur. Any method that has worked for nearly 150 years is OK in my book. But if you are not sold on this method, you can also avoid suck-back by racking your beer into a keg, applying head pressure and then cooling.