PHOTO: Shutterstock
Frank Hyman
January 24, 2019

Once a minor crop, hops are climbing to the top because of demand from craft brewers. You can grow this high-flying plant to take advantage of a rising market and, if you’re a home brewer, to get the beer flavors you love. The female plant’s unopened flowers, called cones, produce oils that give beer its bitterness, flavor and aroma. In the early days of brewing, hops were also valued as a preservative in beer. Yet many things about Humulus lupulus (aka hops) are, in a word, weird:

  • At plant family reunions, hop plants gets to hang out with other frilly leaved relatives such as hemp and marijuana. But we don’t wear, eat or smoke hops.
  • It’s not a vine, like grapes, which use their lateral leaf stems like hands to climb a trellis. Hops are bines, meaning they use their main stem to wriggle up a trellis like a snake.
  • Hop plants care less about cold or heat—they will grow from northern Florida to southern Canada (zones 9 to 3)—than they do about day length. But they won’t set flowers until the days shorten after the summer solstice on June 21.
  • Darwin observed that like sunflowers, hops’ growing tips follow the motion of the sun as they climb.
  • The second part of the plant’s name—lupulus—means “little wolf,” for its kudzu-like habit of swallowing up small trees in the wild.

Because of this aggressiveness, hops can’t be profitably grown without great care. An acre of hop bines need a trellis composed of:

  • as many as 120 utility poles set in a grid pattern;
  • a ton of wire cable strung 2 miles from pole-top to pole-top through eyebolts;
  • several more miles of twine hanging from those cables for the bines to swirl up;
  • and a two-story mechanical harvester, sometimes called a Wolf, to swallow all those H. lupulus plants and their ripe cones. Visitors to a mature hopyard feel like they’re at the bottom of a green maze 20 feet tall.

So yes, hop plants are tall, but supplies are sometimes short because of either drought in Germany, which has become more frequent, or changes in the market. The craft-brewing revolution has been growing about 18 percent a year. While beer aficionados suck up suds, that demand has more than sucked up the slack in the hops harvest recently. Shortages of preferred varieties emerge, especially for brewers who want to use locally grown cones.


Hops How-To

Hops want their heads in the sun and their feet in moist, rich soil. That means at least 8 hours of sunshine and soil enriched with organic matter and access to water. Using an ag extension soil test, keep soil pH at 6 to 8 with lime or sulfur. As early in spring as soil can be worked, plant rhizomes (root cuttings) horizontally, a couple of inches deep with brown rootlets pointing down and white shoots pointing up. Set them 42 inches apart so side branches don’t become a tangled mess by summer.

Bines want to climb, so greet each one with jute or bailing twine that’s anchored to the ground and attached to a cable 12 to 20 feet overhead.

Harvesting

Hops should be harvested when the cones are fragrant and green—between mid-August and mid-September, depending on location and variety. You can harvest by hand, using a ladder or a machine. (Large harvesters can cost $180,000.)

Cones are best fresh but can also be dried for future use. Farmers use balers, dryers and pelletizers for preservation. DIYers can stash cones in a closed paper bag in a warm attic where the cones will dry and remain viable for a couple of years.

Hop Around the Clock

Here are five hops varieties that craft brewers love.

  • Brewer’s Gold: low to moderate yielding, late-season crop; fruity, spicy, black currant flavors; good for ales, pilsners, lambics, saisons and fresh hop ales
  • Cascade: high yielding, mid-season crop; flowery, citrusy flavor with grapefruit note; good for American ales, IPAs, porters and witbiers
  • Chinook: high yielding, mid- to late-season crop; medium aroma, piney with an exotic spiciness; popular with home brewers; good for most beer styles: pale ales, lagers, porters and stouts
  • Galena: moderate yielding, early to mid-season crop; citrusy and slightly spicy flavor; good for stouts, porters, brown ales, IPAs, pale ales, wheat beers and other light ales
  • Zeus: very high yielding, early to mid-season crop; earthy, spicy, pungent flavor with mild citrus tones; good for American ales, pale ales, IPAs and stouts
hops
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Costs for Hops Farming

A hopyard can be profitable for farmers with long summer days between the 35th and 55th parallel. The growth of craft brewing will keep prices up for the foreseeable future.

Establishing an acre of rhizomes with trellis and drip irrigation can cost $6,000 to $10,000. Throw in the specialized equipment for harvesting, hauling, baling and drying cones, and a complete 10-acre hopyard can run $250,000 to establish, not counting the costs of maintenance and harvesting.

  • Number of plants per acre: 750 (average)
  • Price per rhizome: 20 cents to $2 depending on volume and variety.
  • Harvest per acre: as much as 2,500 pounds fresh (wet) hops
  • Price per pound: $4 to $20, depending on fresh, dried or pelletized, quality of cones, and whether it’s a highly sought after variety such as Citra or Amarillo.
  • Gross revenue per acre: $8,000 to $12,000
  • Lifetime of planting and trellis: 20 years

For the Hobbyist

The first cousin to home-brewed beer is homegrown hops. Sure, you can buy hops at a brewer-supply house, but DIY types would rather grow them. Plus, backyard growing provides the knowledge you’ll need before seeking that loan to grow acres of hops. Growing your own also means you’ll join the emerging bine-to-bottle movement.

Each 5-gallon batch of beer requires only a few ounces of hops. One plant generates as much as 2 pounds of dried hop flowers, so you can easily grow enough for a year’s worth of brews and to share with friends.

Getting plants is easy. You can order them online, buy them at your garden-supply house in spring, or even beg cuttings or rhizomes from a local home grower. Choose varieties developed in this country such as Galena, Willamette, Chinook, Brewer’s Gold, Columbus and Zeus. They adapt better to our conditions than most European varieties.

If you have a two-story house, you could run biodegradable jute twine up to the eaves on the southern side of your house. The bines will feast on full sun while your southern windows bathe in summer shade. But be sure the plants’ roots aren’t under the rain shadow of the eaves.

The old-fashioned way to harvest cones involved tall ladders and tedious picking. Best practice for the backyard producer is to run the twine through a pulley on top. When it’s time to harvest the cones in late summer or fall, cut the vines near ground level, lower the plant with the pulley and then pile it on a table to harvest the cones while standing safely on the ground. The cones are then easily dried for use and storage in a closed paper bag in a warm attic.

Unless you have rich, black soil, add a big bucket of compost and a couple handfuls of organic fertilizer to each plant bed. Add either lime or sulfur if your soil’s pH isn’t between 6 and 8. Resist applying too much nitrogen. You’ll get fast growth, but your bines will also be more susceptible to bug and disease problems. Too much nitrogen also dilutes the potency of the hops.

Plant hop rhizomes in spring at least 31⁄2 feet apart, so their side branches don’t become tangled. They need to be set only a couple of inches deep with the brown rootlets pointing down. Lay down a soaker hose if you have several bines; a sprinkler will splash disease organisms around. Cover the ground with 2 inches of organic mulch to keep weeds down, moisture up, earthworms fat and the bed pretty. Re-apply mulch every fall after cutting the bines back.

Lots of bines will come up from the rhizome in spring. Keep the two strongest, and wrap each clock-wise around some twine. Cut out the remaining bines to share with friends as cuttings, or take them into the kitchen to sauté in butter and garlic: a tasty dish sometimes called “poor man’s asparagus.” Of course, wash them down with your best home brew.

Resources

To learn more, check out these books, websites and organizations. Place an order in winter so you’ll have female rhizomes (roots) to plant early in spring. You should also be able to find a good selection of varieties at a local brewer-supply house or online.

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