Anybody can make good ale with materials from a local brewers’ supply shop—malted barley or malt extract, packaged yeast, and dried or pelleted hops. After a few batches, though, the process may seem too easy, almost like making cake from a boxed mix. John Barleycorn has been cut down, skinned, soaked, dried, and ground before you’ve even met him, and all you’ve done is boil and bottle him. Where’s the challenge in that?
A few home brewers of the do-it-all-yourself school are starting from scratch, by laying John Barleycorn in the earth and waiting patiently for his resurrection. But that’s a bit much, isn’t it? You may see yourself as a home brewer but not a grain farmer. Can you find some middle ground?
You can indeed. Even if you live on a small city lot, you can grow your own hops.
If you’ve driven around the hop lands of the Willamette Valley or Washington’s Yakima Valley, the prospect of producing your own hops may intimidate you. A commercial hop yard is an expensive setup, comprising acres of tall poles, 18 feet or higher, connected by wires. Once harvested, using large and specialized equipment, the hops must be properly dried. You may have seen tall, vent-topped kilns built in the nineteenth century for this purpose; modern hop processing plants are much bigger and more complicated still.
But as a home brewer you can get all the hops you need from a single ornamental plant that will demand very little garden space if you train it up—on any fence or pole or any other structure on which it can twine. Deep sandy loam is best, although our hop plant is thriving in the gravel of an old driveway. Beginning in the second year after planting, you can harvest the cones, as the flowers are called, either by picking them in place or by cutting down the bines (not vines) in August or September, when the cones are fragrant and feel springy, dry, and a little sticky to the touch. Then you can use some of the hops fresh, if you like, for an especially aromatic seasonal brew. Or you can dry them all on screens, in a warm place protected from wind and sun, and then freeze them until you’re ready to make beer. One plant will yield as much as two pounds dried hops.
If you want to plant hops this year, now is the time to buy yourself a female rhizome, or runner. Your soil may still be too cold or wet for planting, but don’t wait; some hop nurseries have already sold out of some varieties. Most U.S. sources for hop rhizomes are here in the Willamette Valley, a leading center for hop breeding as well as for production of the aromatic hops favored by craft brewers. Thanks to current efforts to revive hop farming elsewhere, there are also a few hop nurseries in the Midwest and one in New York. Note that hop plants can be shipped within the three-state region of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho but can’t be imported into the region, because of a quarantine.
How do you choose among the many hop varieties available? Some are more bitter than aromatic, others the reverse. Different varieties have somewhat different aromas. You may be able to identify a variety whose aroma you favor by tasting commercial craft beers and checking the labels. Or judge according to the descriptions available from Freshops or USA Hops. If you want to brew a particular style of beer, keep in mind that for various styles certain types of hops are considered most suitable.
For hop planting and growing advice, see “Growing Hops in the Backyard,” from Rutgers Cooperative Extension.