Grow Your Own Hops: Tips from the Pros

Growing hops to use in your homebrew is fun and allows another level of DIY to enter your hobby. Sure, there’s a reason the majority of the world’s hops come from a small handful of renowned growing regions, however hops can be grown just about anywhere, as these three pros from across America will tell you.

Eric R. Sannerud, Hop Consultant, Co-Founder and Farmer-CEO of Mighty Axe Hops in central Minnesota

The single biggest challenge growing hops in Minnesota is the climate. Relative to the hop paradise of the Pacific Northwest (PNW), summers in Minnesota are humid and short. At a backyard scale the two biggest concerns for hop growers in Minnesota are downy mildew, a fungal infection that can cause significant lack in quality of the cones and yield, and Asian lady beetles. Downy can be controlled by reducing moisture around the plant or fungicide applications. Asian lady beetles are significantly more difficult for a backyard grower to manage, even if you choose to spray them, more can come from your neighbor’s property!

Minnesota is home to over 1,000 soil types. Your mileage will vary, but to reach full yield, hops need fertilizer regardless of the soil or container where they are planted. Further, hops do best in slightly acidic, lighter soil.

I always, always, always purchase clean plant network verified plants from reputable hop propagators. Propagating from established plants is a great way to unknowingly increase disease pressure in your hops. I am not sure why people get so excited about cutting rhizomes. I understand it saves a buck, but for me the risk of splitting and re-planting a diseased plant is too much. 

Once established, one of the easiest ways to improve your hop plant’s overall health is to prune each spring. Beyond that, ensure all the bines have found a structure to grow up; more bines on the ground near the crown provides good habitat for downy and other fungi. Of course, regular watering and fertilizing are important too.

If you’re growing hops for your homebrew, harvest them when they smell good to you. Keep in mind the character of your hops’ aroma will shift over the course of ripening. If you want to get more specific, search “hop harvest moisture calculator” on the internet and follow the steps for weighing the dry matter in your cones. This will give you a moisture percentage. Hops are generally considered ripe from around 22–28% dry matter. With 22% being the early side of the ripeness window and 28% the later side. These numbers of course vary by variety and all sorts of other factors. 

Hops can express various different characters when grown in different spaces or in different ways. The most well known example here in the U.S. is Chinook. PNW Chinook is broadly that pink grapefruit/pine aroma you think of with Chinook. When grown outside the PNW, whether in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, or Vermont, Chinook expresses quite a bit differently: Generally some type of pineapple or dank character. Call it terroir, call it regional variation, call it farm-practice variation (more and more research is being done trying to pin point various causes).

Hops are a challenging plant to grow whether in your backyard or in a commercial hop yard, but so rewarding! That experience of smelling cones as they ripen, as their aromas deepen, will stick with you forever. At the very least, growing hops will improve your understanding and appreciation of the most important (in this hop addled brain’s opinion) ingredient in your beer. Try it!

Reid Lundgren, Production Manager at CLS Farms in Washington State’s Yakima Valley

Hops are a very hardy plant that can tolerate most conditions without requiring a huge amount of your time and attention. That said, the better conditions (pH balanced and easy-draining soil, hot climate, full sun . . .), the better the yield. I don’t think there are many places you couldn’t grow hops necessarily, but some places will pose different challenges and most won’t produce the same kind of yields we can get in climates like Yakima Valley’s. 

The reason Yakima Valley is so special is because it is a very northern latitudinal desert — exceptionally long and extremely hot days throughout the growing season, but the Cascade rain shadow provides all the irrigation we need to sufficiently water the hops through the entire growing season. There are plenty of places in the world that have one of the two of those conditions, but typically not all three. The length of day is what truly sets us apart yield-wise from other growing regions.  

So, you want to plant your own hops? First, make sure when planting rhizomes you plant them vertically with the eyes pointing up. March and April is usually the best time to plant. If you establish them in pots and transplant them, do so after the last frost. And remember they are a “bine” and not a “vine” so they will want to grow in a helix the same direction as sun travel if you are going to train them or give them a structure to climb, which is ideal.  

Next, consider the soil. A good pH-balanced soil with lots of organic matter and soil texture is a perfect place to start. Hops create a lot of biomass in a short amount of time (18 feet/5.5 m in 6–8 weeks) so nitrogen is often supplemented. A couple doses of chicken manure or natural bone meal-type sources from a local nursery will be great.    

Hops love water frequently but not a constantly saturated soil. Water at least once a day in the hot part of the season. They will start to wilt if they are not getting enough. Contrarily, if they are getting too much and are in an anaerobic environment they will turn yellow.   

 There are a lot of different diseases and pests to watch out for. The big three are mildew, spider mites, and aphids. There should be an array of tools at your disposal to fight each one; organically it might be a little tougher but can be done.  A couple easy ones to start out with could be diluted hydrogen peroxide for powdery mildew, neem oil for spider mites, and lady bugs for aphids.

Jennifer and Mike Fox, Owners of Fox Valley Farm and Hopyard in Apopka, Florida

Hop growing being new to Florida means we have to rely on trial and error in growing throughout the year vs. a single season (we have been able to harvest up to three times per year). For instance, this year we allowed our hops to go dormant as a trial during the winter. There are no books about growing hops in our climate. We have to be on the lookout for unexpected issues, whereas in the Pacific Northwest and other traditional hop growing regions, the book has already been written and they know what they’re getting into.

Florida’s climate definitely brings unique challenges to growing hops — the biggest being Florida’s short days. We need to add supplemental lighting even during our longest summer days. Once the bines reach the top of the trellis we shut off the lights and allow them to start to cone. 

Our high humidity is also a problem and only certain varieties of hops can tolerate it (Cascade seems to do very well in Florida and we have had the most success with Zeus and Nugget.) Another scenario we are dealing with is deer coming in and enjoying the fresh shoots. Although we were told they don’t like hops, they certainly like the fresh young growth. Insects thus far have not been an issue as we seem to have a lot of good predators (stink bugs, lady bugs, katydids). 

Florida’s soil is quite sandy, so even after amending it with mushroom compost we have to use supplemental fertigation (applying fertilizer through the irrigation). Once established, the only other real chores in maintaining the hops are weeding and quality control of plants to look for any deficiencies or pest issue.

Just like grapes, hops are impacted by terroir. Our Cascade, for instance, has a different profile than Cascade hops grown elsewhere. Ours incorporates melon into its flavor and aroma and also has a higher acid content. 

Even though there are more challenges, we’d absolutely recommend homebrewers in our climate give growing hops a try. We have seen several homebrewers grow small bines in their backyards on small trellis systems with great success without lighting. For home hop growers I believe it is definitely wise, when able, to start with plants grown from tissue cultures. Importing rhizomes can introduced non-native pests and diseases into your climate.

Issue: March-April 2022