Home Grown Hops Part 1

Home Grown Hops Part 1


January 15, 2016 / Brewing

If you’re reading this, chances are you have at least a basic understanding of what hops are and their various uses and properties. There is also a strong possibility you are somewhat familiar with their growing methods and have seen them in one state or another of growth, either digitally or personally. However, there is a distinct likelihood that you have not grown your own or have been met with limited results or difficulties in doing so.

As a local of Yakima, I must confess that in my personal hop yard, the plants grow with little to no effort on my part. In the seven years my rhizomes have been in the ground, I have done little but train them at the onset of growing season, occasionally throw a sprinkler at them, watch them grow wildly out of control, and then cut them down when the harvest window arrives. Due to these various circumstances, my 6’ x 4’ plot has become somewhat of a morass of shoots, and I admit I only know for sure that the hill on the far right is Hallertau, while the signs separating Chinook, Golding and Glacier are long since gone.

Do not however be emboldened or disheartened by the slapdash attention I give to my hops. You can do better, and frankly, I can too. Rhizomes in a commercial hop field have regular attention paid to them. Every few seasons, farmers dig them up and either split them into multiple new rhizomes, or trim them to control hill size and expand acreage. Home brewers can and should do this too, and that is my exact intention this coming season, as I have left them in the ground for too long. Judging by the massive number of shoots coming out of the ground sometimes feet away from the originally planted hills, my hop plants have spread into what may be a confusing collection of monster rhizomes. Rhizome cutting helps to prevent this situation from occurring.

Being a clonally propagated plant (in that existing varieties are grown from cuttings and not seeds), each hop rhizome can be split into multiple new rhizomes, as small as a few inches long to roughly six inches. I would recommend only planting or digging up rhizomes either shortly after harvest (traditionally October), or as soon as you can dig into the ground (February-May depending), as they can either fail from being planted in poor conditions or suffer from a reduced yield.

Yakima happens to fall in the center of a Venn diagram of the various conditions that lend to ideal hop growth and yield. The vast majority of the world’s hop production occurs between 35 and 55 degrees latitude, with the Yakima Valley sitting almost exactly in the middle at the 46th parallel. This determines the amount of daylight we experience, which in turn has a massive impact on the flowering yield of the hop plant.

In terms of weather, Yakima is a desert with slightly sandy soil that does not retain too much moisture allowing the hops to be regularly watered without leading to root rot or mold. Our location at the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range, allows access to a large system of irrigation infrastructure drawing from manmade mountain snowmelt reservoirs (which are also great for escaping the summer heat of the aforementioned irrigated desert) to provide us with water for all the agriculture that occurs in Central Washington. Additionally, well water can be used to supplement irrigation in lean seasons.

All of these conditions contribute to the fact that the Yakima Valley produces over 70% of the North American hop crop, and around 30% of the global supply. These ideal conditions also create the unique ability for first year baby hop plants in the Yakima Valley (and Southern Idaho, too!) to produce up to 95% of their optimal yield, which allows for more rapid adjustments to changing market demands and development of new hop varieties. In other locales, a newly planted rhizome can take two to five years to produce an optimal yield, and sometimes not even produce any cones for the first few years after planting.

Again, do not let this discourage your desire to grow hops. They can grow literally almost anywhere, especially hardy varieties such as Cascade. Boutique commercial hop growing ventures are popping throughout the country, despite their lack of ideal growing conditions. Since you are not putting food on your plates with hops, you don’t have to worry about yield. With a little square footage, stick-to-itiveness and time, I do not doubt you will make some hard fought, verdant cones pop up in your own backyard.


So, how do you do this? Here are some simple tips:


● Decide how many hop plants you want to grow. Ideally, hills are planted 3.5 feet apart from each other to ensure they get as much light as possible. You can work with less, however as previously mentioned in my own example, this can lead to bleed over from hill to hill and varietal confusion. If growing multiple varieties, 5-7 feet would be safer as 45-50 square feet per hill is ideal.

● Pick a plot of south facing dirt. Ideally, this will be the sunniest part of your property without any shade throwers obstructing access to that sweet UV. You’re going to make this your own little Yakima. Once the plot is selected, dig that sucker up to make sure the soil is good and loose. A balance of some pebbles and sand will help with improving drainage. (If it helps, know that our valley is an ancient river bed, so there are dang ol’ rocks everywhere you stick a shovel.) You should probably work in some fertilizer too, depending on the pH level of the soil, climate and location. You’re not going to be digging this up regularly like a traditional vegetable garden, so be sure to build in a good amount of organic material to mulch over time and feed the rhizomes.

● Keep your rhizome slightly damp and cold until you plant them. Rhizomes do best after a hard, cold winter, so keeping them in hibernation until spring is ideal. Rhizomes certainly aren’t into being dry, but don’t keep them so wet they molder either. I personally just had a slightly damp paper towel in a Ziploc bag and kept them in the freezer until planting. Rhizome planting normally occurs anywhere between February and April. For backyard hops, one to two rhizomes per hill will suffice.

● The first year, the hops are going to require more frequent watering to help them establish their root system. During the initial phase, following the planting process, we suggest watering roughly 3-4 times a week, depending on the weather and the dryness of the soil. In the hottest part of summer, 5 or more gallons per plant per day is critical. In subsequent years, you can put them on a timed drip system to provide daily water, but not overmuch.

● Don’t expect immediate results. Tended well, your plant will lock itself in place and produce an annual delight for years to come, but you probably won’t see anything of note the first year. Patience is a virtue, and your rhizome is judging you. Especially if you are outside of the 35 to 55 latitude range, your results will vary.

● Always bet on Cascade. It has been known to produce the world over, and is a perennial superstar. Golding is also a good choice because it takes on a unique character based on wherever it is grown.

But, don’t take my word for it. This is well trod ground, and a wealth of resources exist on the internet and in print. For the definitive guide, Homegrown Hops by David R. Beach should have about everything you need. In the end, you’re going to get out of hops what you put into them. I always endorse people growing their own, so everyone can participate in the delight of brewing with fresh, green hops. Cheers!

Many thanks to Patrick Smith of Loftus Ranches and Steve Carpenter of YCH for their input from many years of experience and oversight as commercial hop growers.

Stay tuned to the Hop Wire for Part Two of our Home Grown Hops blog series for your next steps, including training and caring for your hop bines!

3 User Comments

5

I have had 4 hop plants for 2yrs, 2 Chinook, 1 Golding, and 1 Fuggles. Funny I just looked up our latitude here in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, and it is 45.96 degrees, so about the same as Yakima!

Initially I planted the rhizomes in 5gal buckets, mostly because I was too lazy to out fit our back yard with what they needed. First year, didn't get much. 8 whole small chinook cones. 2nd year, I managed to get about an oz and a half Chinook (dried) and about an oz combined of the Fuggles and Golding. This spring, I plan on putting them in the ground. The back yard is basically just a lawn (nothing special, just wild grown grass....grows like bad weeds, lots of wild strawberries, may have been part of a small hay field at one time, definitely not cultivated grass you would see in sod that would be installed or grass seeds).

What I am thinking of doing is using 2X6 cedar, and building a box 3ft square (would be like a raised bed). Strip the lawn off under where the box would go obviously and fill with good dirt. 3ft square big enough for one plant? Looking above I see everything from 3.5' to 5', and that different varieties should be 5-7' apart. That might be slightly hard to do as there is so much room to use, part of the back yard/lawn has the weeping field for our septic system, which actually would likely be a good place to put the hops, but likely the hops would find their way into the weeping system, which wouldn't be good.

I have 3 varieties now, with possibly 3 more coming in early spring, now wondering if I am really going to have enough room to put them all if I have to spread the different varieties out that far, (gotta find some place to put my wife's pool as well!). Front yard would also be ideal (sun pretty much from sun up, until 3-4pm), but wife frowns on that.

Scott Millican | Jan 21st, 2016
1

Ok, planting and growing went fine, drying and packaging was my problem, and my beer tastes like the underside of a lawnmower! I think I need some help here.

Neil | Mar 4th, 2016
4

I'd love to see a follow-up to this article on best practices for how to best care for your plants and rhizomes in subsequent years.

Jesse | Aug 17th, 2016

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