If you have ever thought about growing your own hops, stop thinking and start now. It is easier than you think and coupled with the knowledge that the beer that you have hand crafted contain hops that you have grown in your own back garden, you have a compelling argument to give it a go.
Hops or Humulus lupus are part of the Cannabinaceae family. As the name suggests they are in the same family as their more infamous relative the cannabis plant. There are chemical similarities between the two plants but the resins of the two species are completely different. The resins of the hop being responsible for the bitter flavour in beer and those in the cannabis plant for their well documented hallucinogenic properties.
Interestingly although the main hop growing regions are in particular geographical locations with climate conditions ideal for growing hops they are quite a hardy plant and so, if you live in a temperate climate, your hop plant should thrive.
Where can you find hop plants?
Hops can be found growing in the wild and cuttings can be taken to propagate in your garden. However, in my experience it is often simpler to purchase a plant from a reputable garden centre. In the past I have purchased hop plants online and, in the UK, can recommend the Hop Shop (www.hopshop.co.uk). The benefit of purchasing your hop is that the plant will already be well established and so can simply be planted out and, most importantly, you will be able to decide what variety you want to grow.
Hops are very hardy plants and can tolerate most soil types and planting locations but it is best to avoid overly exposed or windy positions. Hops send out very deep roots, in search of water, so although requiring some irrigation they are not overly thirsty plants and so will not make you an enemy of your local water company.
Plant your hop in a deep hole so that the base of the new seasons shoots are at the level of the ground. Mix in some organic manure with the soil, as you fill in the hole, or alternatively you can sprinkle a well balanced lawn or garden fertiliser around the plant. However, remember not to over do the fertiliser.
Once established the plant will grow very rapidly, for example a mature plant can grow up to 5 metres between the end of April and early July sending out long vine like structures. Unlike other climbing plants, such as ivy or clematis, the hop does not cling so you will need to have some kind of supporting string, wire or trellis for it to twist around. Once new shoots appear in spring gently twist two or three around the support in a clockwise direction. When hops are grown for commercial use two or three shoots are trained up a maximum of three strings to encourage dense and vigorous growth. In mature plants you may find that extra shoots will grow and it is usual to break off these extra shoots at ground level.
It can take up to three years for your plant to reach full maturity but once it does it should start to form tiny burrs in late July which will develop into hop cones that will last from mid August to mid September. Hop cones are usually harvested during the first half of September, if harvesting is left too late the cones will turn brown and their brewing quality will decline. The plant itself will die back in the Autumn and should be cut back to ground level during the winter.
I usually leave the harvested hop cones in a warm dry place for up to a week before storing in an airtight bag. I then keep them in the freezer to preserve the quality of the hops. Alternatively you may like to use them immediately as “green” hops if so we suggest using them to dry hop to achieve a good hop aroma rather than in the boil for bittering.
You are now ready to brew with your home-grown hops!