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Hops emerging in the spring.
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Hops in the Backyard


As the sun beats down, my shelter of shade has been reduced to a sliver. Pick, pick, pick. I feel the sun beating on my head, and my scratched arms burn a bright red. Pick, pick, pick. My fingers are turning black and old callouses are refreshed. Pick, pick, pick. It is late summer, and I find myself picking hops. It's not all bad. Picking hops is time-consuming, but can be quite rewarding, especially if you know someone with brewing equipment.

Returning from their trip to the United Kingdom, my parents brought me a small book titled "Hop Pickers of Kent & Sussex". It is a fascinating glimpse into the life of hop pickers before mechanization. While my little hop patch pales in comparison to the scale of work accomplished by these old-world hop pickers, I can certainly empathize with their stories sitting on my back patio surrounded by harvested bines.

Site Prep and Hops Selection

What does it take to grow hops in a backyard? Well first you need lots of room, and this is referring more to vertical space than horizontal. A hop bine will grow up to twenty-five feet in height if you let it. Locate a suitable planting area in full sun, with good airflow, and well-drained soil. If your site is relatively level, mound the rows to aid with drainage.

Due to their susceptibility to disease, a majority of US hops grow in the arid climate of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Our weather is not as reliable as the Pacific Northwest. In the Midwest, a year of drought may be followed by a year of monsoons. Therefore, in Illinois, good airflow, drainage, and access to irrigation are essential to minimizing the potential for infection.

Order certified disease-free hop rhizomes from a reputable dealer. Rhizomes will likely arrive in early spring for planting. Mulch the planted rhizomes and make sure they receive adequate water. During the first year, hops concentrate mostly on root development and yields will be low. After reading and speaking with other Midwest hop growers I went with Cascade. This variety is reported to perform well in Central Illinois and can handle most Midwestern climates.

Training Your Hops

A trellis system should be in place to train the hops. The higher you can go, the better. In a backyard, ten-feet should be the minimum goal for height. Commercially, hop trellises can be twenty to thirty feet tall. Use strong baling twine for the hops to cling and grow up. The jute string I used worked well the first year but broke multiple times the second year under the weight of a full bine.

As shoots emerge from the ground, train the two or three most vigorous on the baling twine. Wrap the hops clockwise around the twine. Continue to monitor and remove additional shoots that emerge.

Fertilizer

Due to their extensive vegetative growth, side dress hops with four ounces of nitrogen fertilizer split into four applications from the time of emergence in April to the end of vegetative growth in July. Hops require good drainage, but once fully grown they use significant amounts of water. Provide supplemental irrigation during times of low rainfall and high temperatures. During active growth in June and July, an actively growing hop plant may need four to six gallons of water per day. Our Illinois soils supply the phosphorous and potassium needs of the hops. An inch of compost supplies my hops with any additional micro-nutrients.

Harvest

My harvest this year's consists of nine hop bines. (The total would have been an even ten, but one bine was lost to an errant string trimmer) What we seek to harvest is the flower or cone of a female hop plant. Hop cones are ready to be harvested when the outside scales feel papery and dry. The lupulin inside the cone is dark yellow, like the color of mustard. A cone ready to harvest stays compressed when crushed by hand and leaves behind a sticky residue and aroma of a good hoppy beer.

Harvested hop cones can be immediately used to brew wet-hopped ales, or dried for later use. As I learned the hard way, you have about two hours to get the picked hops into some drying mechanism, before the product begins to degrade. I was using small plastic grocery bags to toss my harvested cones. Considering that picking one bine takes me about an hour, the beginning of the harvest sat in plastic bags for almost six hours by the time I got the cones to the drying rack.

Drying

Drying hops cones does not need to be overly-complicated. My drying device consists of a four-foot square frame made of 2x4s and window screen stretched around the frame. The drying rack is raised up two-feet with a box fan circulating air underneath. If not properly dried, hops will mold and spoil. Dry hops to 8% to 10% moisture. Monitor moisture content by placing a handful of hops in a mesh bag as your sample. Use a kitchen scale to weigh the sample over the course of the drying process. Once the weight of the dried hops indicates a 90% to 92% loss of weight compared to when they were freshly harvested, hops are ready to be vacuumed sealed and placed in a freezer.

Are Hops for You?

If you've read this far and are shaking your head at what may seem like a lot of work, allow me to reassure that growing hops is fairly different from most other garden crops. It has been a delight to try something new. As a gardener, it's all about the process of growing that gets us going.

 

Now hopping's just beginning

We've got our time to do,

We've only come down hopping

To earn a quid or two

My arms are scratched all over,

My hands have gone all brown,

But don't you let the hopping

Never, ever get you down

--Experts from Hopping Down in Kent by Nell Hearson

Additional resources:

Michigan State University - Growing Hops http://msue.anr.msu.edu/uploads/resources/pdfs/Growing_Hops_(E3210).pdf

Cornell Cooperative Extension – Growing Hops in the Home Garden http://madisoncountycce.org/agriculture/hops-program/growing-hops-at-home

Rutgers – Growing Hops in the Backyard https://njaes.rutgers.edu/pubs/fs992/

Purdue – Hops Production in Indiana (Commercial Growers) https://ag.purdue.edu/hla/Extension/Pages/Hops.aspx

University of Vermont - Determining Hop Harvest Moisture & Ideal Storage Dry Matter https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfUYXu4-0-s


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