This is a follow up to Home Grown Hops Part One
Assuming everything has proceeded according to plan, you’ve watched your hop plants grow from humble shoots to mighty bines threatening to engulf anything and everything around them within their itchy clutches. This is good. This means your conditions are favorable and you have properly tended their first season of growth. If you have only a few meager tendrils snaking lazily up the naked twine, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t grow hops, just that it may take a bit more time and effort to produce a satisfying result. In many areas of the world, it takes up to three years from planting to have a fully entrenched, full production level hop plant.
The next piece really depends on how your growing season has gone, and what your cone production looks like. Hop cones are the signature, recognizable produce of the hop plant and the piece so integral to modern brewing. These intoxicating, fragrant oddities are in fact the flower of the female hop plant. Depending on your geographic area and a host of other factors, you may be seeing scads of fully formed cones, a proliferation of baby burrs or maybe nothing but leaves and bine. Oh, on that note, let’s talk for a second about bines, as I’ll be saying it a fair bit. Bines are the hop “vine” to simplify the point, as a bine grows in a helix about a supporting mass such as a length of coir yarn or twine, post, tree or whatever else you have.
If you’ve got burrs or less, just wait it out for the cones to arrive, and if you’ve got some nice, roughly ¾-1” long cones, it’s time to start evaluating their harvest readiness. I usually rip one off every so often August to October, tear it lengthwise and take a deep whiff of the contents. It’s the culmination of months of waiting, so take pleasure in that beguiling scent. Before you cast the cone’s remnants to the ground, take a moment to inspect the interior of the cone, and particularly the base of the bracteole. Here at the strig you should see a growing cluster of yellow lupulin glands forming. From these, most of the magic of the hop flows forth. Think on that scent, take another pull. Do you smell the characteristic hop character you associate with the freshiest of the fresh IPAs, or just some base, green grassy notes? If it’s not blowing you up, it’s probably not ready. While this is somewhat variety dependent, fresh Hallertauer should still smell intense if it’s ready. If the aroma has gone over into pungent garlic or onion, your cone is over-ripe. Now look at the lupulin formation and evaluate those in proportion to the scent. You should see some decent powdering of a vibrant yellow nature and if they smell great, then we can move on to other readiness waypoints.
Hop growers measure the dry-matter content of hop cones through their labs or ours to get a more concrete definition of when a field is ready to harvest. Dry-matter is the opposite of percent moisture by weight and indicates how heavy the cone will be once dried. This information is also combined with the standard harvest window traditional for each established variety as well as personal feel and years of experience evaluating through their trained senses. You too can perform such a test at home by following the instructions on The University of Vermont’s Hop Harvest Moisture Calculator.
If you don’t want to get that sciencey, the old ways work as well. In addition to the lupulin inspection and sensory analysis methods mentioned previously, tactile inspection of the hop cone is a way to determine moisture level and thus harvest readiness. Pluck one of your largest cones, and jiggle it about in your cupped hand. It should feel light, somewhat papery. Now pinch it between your thumb and forefinger. If it squishes and stays that way, the moisture level is still too high to harvest. If it springs back, and passes all the other sensory tests, there is a good chance it’s ready to harvest. Now, all the cones mature at somewhat different times, and since you aren’t a commercial hop grower, you can choose to have a leisurely harvest from the time the first cones are ready until the last. To do this, you must of course go through the somewhat more labor intensive method of picking hops from the bines while they remain attached. Depending upon the height of your hop bines, this could involve a ladder and in that case be sure to exercise caution when picking.
Picking in this method carries with it a few benefits over cutting down the bine and picking it that way. For starters, you are able to pick the cones that are ready to harvest and leave the rest to mature which lengthens your harvest window and increases your overall yield. Secondly, you can leave the bine in place until fall and wait for it to wither and the leaves to fall off. This way, all of the energy the rhizome put into generating the bines and leaves can return down into the ground and result in a healthier plant overall. This is especially important if it is a first year plant just getting established.
The next and most important choice to make is what you are going to do with your hops. Personally, as you no doubt lack the lab equipment necessary to do alpha acid analysis and determine your bittering potential, I heartily recommend using your homegrown hops for late kettle aroma additions in a fresh hop beer. Being a brewer in the Yakima Valley, I have always made several fresh hop beers each harvest season, and relish the singular experience that only comes this specific time of year.
However, if you wish to store your hops, then it gets somewhat more complicated. Drying hops, depending on the quantity, can be quite an endeavor. Before the widespread advent of drying houses or oasts, hops were dried by laying them out on screens and letting the sun do the work. This can still work, and if you do a search for drying homegrown hops you will find all sorts of solutions people have dreamt up and have had success with. The most important part is that they dry evenly, so if they are more than one cone deep, be sure to turn them periodically, and be gentle, as the lupulin can fall out of finished cones if you’re not careful. Then, after drying, find some way to store them cold, in a low oxygen environment. These two conditions will make them quite storable, and you can enjoy the fruits of your harvest for potentially years to come. Home growers often use a vacuum saver and store them in the freezer.
Once your harvest is complete, and the bines have withered, cut them several inches from the ground, being careful not to disturb the rhizome;this bine marker will help you locate your hop hill next season. Depending upon your conditions, if you are in an area that experiences single digits in the winter, be sure to throw a moderate blanket of mulch and organic debris on top of your hill to both feed the soil as well as insulate the rhizome from the coldest times. However, do not be too zealous as the rhizome benefits from the ground experiencing a hard freeze to help it prepare for the spring ahead.
All in all, I hope your hop growing experience has been an educational and interesting one, and again by no means should this be your only piece of reference. There are many articles and blog posts that zoom in closer on specific elements and should provide you with more knowledge to equip you for your future growing efforts.
If you have not had the opportunity to read Home Grown Hops Part One, click here to read about how to prepare your backyard hop garden next spring!