Not only can you brew your own beer at home, but you can also grow some (if not all!) the ingredients for your homebrew. The easiest and most obvious choice is hops. You don't need a huge tract of land to grow hops, although to grow enough to brew year-round you'll probably find that you will be planting a large crop.
Commercial hop growers, whether in England, Germany, the Czech Republic, Washington state, Oregon, or even Vermont, cultivate from a few dozen to thousands of acres. But the homebrewer/homegrower really needs only a half-barrel of soil on the porch to grow a single vine or a few square feet of appropriate garden space for a more substantial planting.
Hop plants thrive on moist, rich soil with a pH around seven (between five and eight should be okay). They should be kept well watered during the entire growing season but never left to sit in swampy conditions. Therefore, the best site would be a patch in full sun that is accessible to a convenient water source and drains well. The vines can grow straight up as high as 20 to 30 feet, so there should be no obstructions overhead. One possible planting area would be a slope with southern exposure where the soil is improved with wood ash, manure, or compost.
Selecting a Variety
The variety of hops you choose to grow depends, of course, on what you like to brew and how much. Some varieties do better in certain locations. Some are prolific vine producers but minimalists when it comes to cone harvest.
In New England, where there is a short growing season (sometimes only 50 days), people have had success with almost every available variety, but especially with those that are normally fast-growing and productive such as Cascade, Nugget, Chinook, and Willamette.
If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you're in luck. A huge percentage of commercial hops are grown in the Yakima and Willamette valleys. There probably isn't a variety that won't grow successfully somewhere in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. If you live in Minnesota, Kansas, Louisiana, Florida, or Arizona, don't despair. There is historical record of hops being grown at one time or another in every state in the union and in almost every country in the world where people have made beer. If you prepare the soil, research the site carefully, and remember to water your plants properly during the first year of growth, you can overcome almost any climate.
To start a hop garden you need female hop rhizomes, the bud-producing runners from which the plants grow. Until recently they were hard to come by. You either had to know someone who had them or cut a deal with a commercial grower to acquire them. Oh, some garden and nursery supply places might sell you an ornamental vine, but you never knew what variety it would turn out to be or even if it was usable for brewing.
In some places such as New England, lucky homebrewers found old-growth hops (often gone feral) around abandoned house sites, in old barnyards, and in similar forgotten areas.
Now, however, there are large-scale suppliers who deal in both commercial and retail sales of rhizomes. In addition, most retail brewing supply places (both stores and mail-order) place an order for their customers in the spring. Check with your regular supplier in February to see if they have plans to get some (and if they don't, encourage them to do so!).
Wherever you get rhizomes, be sure they are female. Only female hop plants produce cones and if male plants are lurking about, the cones become seeded. Most brewers prefer seedless hops.
Preparing the Hopyard
It's never too early to prepare the soil where you plan to plant hops. It helps to give it an entire winter to settle and energize, but a couple weeks before planting will still do the trick. One method that has yielded good results with nine different varieties, even in the frosty climes and short growing season of central Vermont, is as follows:
- With a post-hole digger or small spade, dig three circular holes, about eight inches in diameter and 10 to 12 inches deep, arranged in a triangle with at least a foot of space between each hole (the vines may intertwine at this distance; if you can, grow them farther apart).
- In the bottom of the holes, place a one-inch layer of wood ash, an inch of straw or grass clippings, an inch of some mellow, already composted manure (sheep seems to be about the best), and three inches of the topsoil you removed from the hole, and cover with three inches of mulch.
- Water well. Let age and settle for at least two weeks.
- After vines begin to grow (see below) you will need to rig up some kind of trellis system for them to attach to. It sounds absurd until you have actually grown them, but a hop vine may need as much as 30 feet of vertical support for a single year's growth! Most hopyards train the vines on 18- to 20-foot trellises. So before planting, put in one stake (a foot tall, more or less) in the center of the triangle. Behind the triangle, perhaps three feet away, install a pole with a long strand of strong twine attached to the top, long enough to attach to the stake at the bottom when it becomes necessary in a few weeks.
The pole can be anything that does the job. One possibility is a 15- to 30-foot maple sapling, one inch to 1 1/2 inches in diameter, stripped of all branches and leaves.
Hops are a fairly hardy plant, all in all, so it's hard to get them in the ground too early. However, if you live anywhere where there is frost or snow, you'd best wait until the ground is workable. It's hard to dig these holes if the soil is frozen solid. If you're a gardener, a general rule of thumb is to plant new hops at the same time you put in your peas.
Once you have established hop plants, you can use them to judge when to plant new ones. When the old ones begin to look as if they are sprouting, it's time to put in the new ones.
The rhizomes should be stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to plant them. When planting time comes, soak them in luke-warm water as you transport them to the hopyard. Dig out the layer of mulch and an inch of the topsoil you put into the holes. Lay the rhizomes on their side, one to each hole. Be careful not to damage rootlets (if your rhizome has them) or eyelets that are present on the rhizome.
Try to spread out the rootlets and eyelets on the (horizontal) level of the rhizome itself. Cover with topsoil to a depth of one to two inches, then cover with loose mulch, leaving at least two inches of hole above unfilled. Water well. Continue watering daily for a week, then frequently enough during the first growing season for the soil to never get dry but not so it remains swampy.
The Growing Season
Some varieties of hops will be up and growing within a few days of planting. Others may take four weeks and then, just as you are ready to give up on them, 12 shoots will come up out of nowhere. Generally speaking, your hops should be several inches high by the beginning of summer, provided there has been enough water and the temperature hasn't been too low.
Once the equinox has passed, watch for certain varieties (Cascade, Tettnanger, Chinook) to zoom up the strings at a rate of two to eight inches a day. Yes, a day. Late in the summer, growth will slow way down and the first flowers will begin to appear, then fill out and mature (although many varieties do not flower at all during their first growing season).
Perhaps the trickiest part of growing your own hops is knowing precisely when to pick. Varieties will vary, of course, but a general rule of thumb is to check the cones daily:
- By sight. They should look uniformly light green to yellow, paper-thin, beginning to separate a bit, with a trace of yellow dust (lupulin) on the stem end of the cone.
- By touch. They should feel papery, dry, not quite brittle.
- By smell. After squeezing one of the cones, your hands should smell like hops. However, you shouldn't be able to smell the resins from more than a few inches away from the plant.
If they seem ready to pick, go ahead and pick 'em! Gather a few friends and break out a few homebrews on a clear warm day, cut the vines down at about the 15-inch line, lay them on a clean, dry surface, and remove all the cones one by one. (It can be a long, tedious job, which is why you need the friends and the homebrew.) Warning: Do not try to pick hops from a standing vine if homebrew is going to flow. It is always safer to work on the horizontal than to be on a 10-foot ladder with a mug of beer.
Get Ready to Brew
The next step is to dry the hops. You can be fancy and do it in a dehydrator. Or you can put them on a cookie sheet and dry them in an oven (with the door open) at 100° to 150° F. Or you can air dry them.
To air dry you need a space that is breeze-free, dry, warmish, and vermin-free. Set up a series of window screens or mesh of some kind so that they are horizontal but don't lay on the floor. Place your harvest bounty on the screens, then just leave it. It will take a few days to dry, but it's cheaper than a dehydrator or the electricity to keep an oven running for 10 to 12 hours.
When the hops are dry, you'll know. They should feel very brittle but still be green, and they should weigh a fraction of what they did when you picked them (so don't get excited over the pound of Cascade flowers you got from the first year's growth – when all is said and done, all you've got is an ounce!). Pack the hops into zippered plastic storage bags, squeezing out every bit of air that you can, label them, and place them in the freezer.
Voilà. Fresh hops to bitter, flavor, or aromatize your homebrew!
By the way, you don't have to throw away the vines you cut down. Before they dry out they can be woven into very attractive and sturdy wreaths or baskets. If you don't weave and don't know anyone who does, the vines can either be composted to use as mulch for the next planting or dried and burned to create suitable ash to sweeten the holes for the next batch of rhizomes.
Last word: After the harvest let the vines grow if they will, but as soon as the first frost comes (or by November if you live in a frost-free region), cut them to an inch, fertilize, and mulch for the winter.