Growing Hops: Tips from the Pros

Dave Wills,  Freshops in Philomath, OR

You don’t need much land to grow hops — a two-foot by two-foot (0.6-m by 0.6-m) plot will do. The plants grow vertically, so if you have a nice southern location on your house and some support (like a pole or a string) hops should grow fine. I would not recommend using pots, however. These plants grow 18 feet (5.4 m) vertically in three months so they need more root support than pots provide.

A strong support system is needed for the plant to climb. Look for space along fences, garage or property lines. Plant in early spring once the threat of frost is gone but no later than May. The soil where you plant the hops should be tilled to create a weed free area and be worked into a friable condition. In cold climates you can plant rhizomes in pots and transplant them in June. Hops prefer full sun and rich soil, preferably light textured and well-drained with a pH of 6.5–8.0.

If drainage is a problem, small mounds can be built using surrounding topsoil mixed with organic matter. Plant one rhizome per hill with the buds pointed up and cover with one inch of loose soil. Hills should be spaced at least three feet (0.9 m) apart if the hops are of the same variety and five feet (1.5 m) apart if they are not.

The first year the hop plant has a minimal root system and requires frequent, but light watering — be careful not to drown it with too much water. Mulching the soil surface with some organic matter helps conserve moisture and control weeds.

Each spring apply a hearty dose of manure as a top dressing or fertilize with a balanced chemical fertilizer that is recommended for garden vegetables. Don’t expect very much in growth of flowers the first year because the hop is basically establishing its root system. Full growth and a maximum crop of flowers will be achieved during the second year.

When the young vines are about one foot (0.3 m) long, two to six vigorous vines are selected for each hill and the rest removed. One to three vines can be trained clockwise on a string that has been staked to the hill. Hops mainly grow vertically, but lateral sidearms extend from the main vine and produce flowers. The main concern is to support the vines and prevent sidearms from tangling. Most cones are produced on the upper part of the plant.

In July, the lowest four feet (1.2 m) of foliage and lateral branches can be removed to aid in air circulation and reduce disease development. The removal of lower leaves (stripping) must be done carefully to avoid breaking or kinking the main stem. In August, allow additional bottom growth to remain in order to promote hardiness of the crown and plant vigor for next year.

At the end of the season you can bury healthy bottom vines for propagating new plants the next spring. Simply bury the vines in a shallow trench and mark their location. In spring dig them up and cut them into pieces about four inches (10.2 cm) long. Make sure each new cutting has an eye or bud. The following year, the harvest date will vary with variety and location. At maturity, the hop aroma is at its strongest and is measured by crushing a cone and smelling it. The yellow lupulin glands in the cone become much more evident and plump looking when magnified. The cone will develop a drier, papery feel as it matures. Some browning of the lower bracts is a good sign of ripeness. Squeeze the cones as they develop and you will notice they become more resilient.

After picking the flower cones (without the leaves), drying can be done in a good dehydrator, custom made hop dryer, well-vented oven or you can simply air dry. If you use heat, the temperature should not exceed 140 ºF (60 ºC). Under dry weather conditions, I suggest taking a screen off of your house and setting it up in a wind protected area, elevated on each end. Spread the hops as shallow as possible and fluff daily so moist inner cones are brought to the outside of the pile. If weather is dry and the pile is not too thick they will dry in about three days.

A high moisture content in the cones will adversely affect storability and recipe formulation. The hops are dry when the inner stem of the cone (strig) is brittle and breaks rather than bends. The strig takes much longer to dry than the bracts, so be patient. Be sure to store the hops in an airtight container in the freezer until used.

Diana Puterbaugh, Puterbaugh Farms in Mabton, WA

The “best” conditions for growing hops is a south to southwest facing spot with a structure of some kind on which the hops can grow (e.g. a fence, garage, deck or trellis). Hops need lots of daylight and love the heat of summer.

Good soil comes next. I would first suggest mixing some old mulch and fertilizer into your plot with a shovel. Dig quite deep, approximately two feet (0.6 m) down and roll the soil and additives around to loosen the ground where the new roots will grow.

Give the area a good drink of water and see how well it drains. Improve the planting area if it drains poorly. Hops begin best as a root and like to be planted early in the year (March or April, depending on location). Just make sure the topsoil is not frozen.

One hill of three or four established hops roots should provide about twenty pounds of fresh hops in the fall. The first year yields are usually a lot less. Baby hops require a bit of attention, but once established, the hop will grow pretty much on its own.

Create your hop hills about five to seven feet apart (2.1 m) (if planting more than one variety or more than one hill). Keep in mind these plants will grow excessively. In the summer, many of our hops will grow a foot in one day. That’s no exaggeration!

Also, remember hops need something to climb on. We frequently sell hop twine (jute) to our customers because the hop requires a coarse string. Basic string or wire is too slick and the plant just will not make it.

Do keep in mind that when the plant reaches about two feet (0.6 m) in height, it will need a little help going in the right direction. They need to be trained around the string in a clockwise direction. Like a sunflower, the head of the hop will follow the sun each day. Just gently wind the young plant shoots (once long enough) around the string to get it well established.

Later in the fall, as the hops reach maturity the flowers will bloom like a rose bud. The cone petals will have a “give” to them when squeezed. Sort of a springy feel and, of course, the aroma will be evident, too.

Issue: March-April 2005