Hop Growing at Home
Growing hops at home is among the more rewarding non-brewing activities a homebrewer could do. There’s a little upfront investment for a trellis, some planning involved and patience, but when those first cones start to come in, the harvest season can’t come soon enough.
Last year was my second season of growing hops, and the first where I got cones worth a damn. (If you want to see how I set up the trellis, click here.) There were some close calls with powdery mildew and it seemed like I was watering or weeding every day. The fresh hop ale that resulted, however, rinsed away the blisters and soil stains.
Now is the time when people down South are planting their hops and, up here in New England, we’re ordering rhizomes and twiddling our thumbs until the snow melts. Cold-climate people, don’t despair. Use your extra time to read up, plan and consult with experts.
That’s where Heather Darby and Rosalie Madden come in. Darby is an Extension Agronomist at The University of Vermont. Madden is a crops and soils technician at the extension. They’ve been involved in the Vermont Hops Project, an effort at the UVM Extension to develop an outreach and applied research program for growing hops in the state. The local-first movement and rich beer culture in Vermont have created some interest in local commercial supplies of hops.
Darby and Madden took a few minutes to talk about factors that you should consider when growing hops at home, how to guard against pests and disease, and the options available to people without a lot of space or a yard. Their answers follow:
1. What are the key factors a home-based grower needs to consider when siting a hop yard?
If you are going to invest in a hop yard it is best to pick a spot where they will thrive! Hops need a lot of sun and a lot of water to grow, but they hate wet feet. Try to choose a well-drained spot that gets full sun and is close to a water source. Also pay attention to airflow of the potential hop yard location. Good air circulation is important especially for limiting disease infection. Lastly, pay attention to make sure the soil has an acceptable pH ranging from 6.0 to 6.5.
There are many methods of trellising hops. For someone who is just going to grow a few plants, any of these already established structures would work. For a small number of plants you might try single pole trellising. This consists of one central pole that is over 12’ in height. Hop rhizomes are planted in a wide circle around the pole. Twine is strung from the top of the pole to the hop plant, creating a teepee-like design.
Other designs include horizontal trellising systems that are common in commercial hopyards. Remember the majority of the crop will be above 9 feet, and hops can grow upwards of 20 feet high. The more vertical space you give the plant, the more hop cones they’ll yield.
One thing to consider before planting is how you plan on harvesting them. Allowing hops to grow up twine is probably the easiest, because then you can just cut the twine down and pick the cones on a horizontal surface, like a table, as opposed to climbing a ladder and having to move it every few feet.
3. What are the best hop varieties suited for Northeastern climates? Are there any “universal” varieties that could grow anywhere?
There are several factors to consider when selecting a hop variety. First you should make a list of hops you like brewing with at home. Next you need to determine if these varieties are public or private. Public hop varieties are available for you to grow at home. From this list you want to find varieties that are suitable to your growing region.
Growers that we’ve talked to have all reported that Cascade grows quite well in our region. Nugget, Willamette, Centennial, and Chinook also do well. It just so happens that these varieties are also resistant to powdery mildew a major disease in our temperate climate.
4. Powdery mildew has been a big problem for hop producers in the Northeast. What does it look like and how can it be controlled?
Powdery mildew is the primary reason that hops production moved west! This disease thrives in high-humidity, low light areas with minimal circulation. Early signs of powdery mildew include white powdery patches on the surface of the leaf. Burrs that become infected do not produce cones and cones infections may have a red tinge. The disease spores spreads easily from plant to plant through rain and wind.
The key to controlling powdery mildew is good sanitation practices in the hopyard. Remove and destroy severely infected plants. Make sure that the yard has good air circulation. Removing leaves from the bottom of the bines can help removed diseased leaves and improve air movement in the yard. Planting resistant varieties will also help minimize disease infection and spread. Resistant varieties include Cascade. Fungicides can also be used control powdery mildew. Application of fungicides should occur when the first powdery mildew spots are observed. Significant yield and quality losses can be observed if powdery mildew is able to infect burrs and cones.
5. What are the most common pests that affect hops in New England and how can they be controlled?
Downy mildew could potentially become an issue in our area. The disease is noticed first on growing out of young bines in the spring. Downy mildew over winters in the crown and in the spring young shoots will show symptoms and first leaves are yellow or yellow-greenish, brittle, and will curl downwards. Best form of control begins with prevention.
To keep downy mildew out of your yard make sure to only purchase disease free rhizomes. If possible choose to plant varieties that are at least partially resistant to downy mildew (Cascade, Fuggle, Perle, Tettnange, and Willametter). If you have the downy mildew you can try to limit the spread of the disease by removing any infected plants and/or plant tissue from the yard as soon as it is spotted in the spring.
Moisture on the leaves will encourage downy mildew development, and so a good management practice is to encourage airflow so that the leaves can dry quickly after being wetted by dew or rain. This might include pulling the leaves off of the lower 3-4’ of a bine after it is mature. And of course, you can try to limit the spread of the disease between your plants by not handling infected plants, and then handling uninfected plants. There are also fungicides that can be sprayed to keep the disease at bay. For a list of approved fungicides contact your local Extension for recommendations for your area.
In addition to disease there are several insect pests including spider mites, hop aphids, and Japanese beetles that may become a problem on your hops. At low pest population levels beneficial insects such as ladybird beetle and green lacewings can be successful control methods. Sometimes insect pest populations can explode quickly and other means of control such as insecticides might be necessary. Prior to applying a insecticide you should first be certain of the pest and that the level of infestation warrants control. Specific pest control recommendations can be found on our website at www.uvm.edu/extension.cropsoil/hops.
6. Would you ever recommend using nonorganic fungicides or pesticides on hops? Why or why not?
Hops are good hosts for many insects and diseases. It is important for a grower to always know the pest they are dealing with in the crop. Knowing the lifecycle of the pest will help you adequately control the issue. You will need to scout your hops regularly during the season to keep your eye on new, emerging, and exploding pest populations.
Generally if you are monitoring the crop you will be able to stop a pest in its tracts prior to extreme damage. When controlling pest you should always start by using cultural practices to keep pests off form the hops. Cultural practices include selecting resistant varieties, buying disease free rootstock, good sanitation practices, and selecting a good growing environment for the hops. In the event that pests reach the economic threshold you might consider applying a pesticide to keep crop loss at a minimum. You should select a pesticide that is registered to control the target pest, is effective, and is of least harm to the environment and nontarget organisms.
Before applying read the label carefully and only apply at recommended rates and times. Applying more than the labeled rate does not mean it will eliminate more of the pest.
In general, as long as the chemical is used as directed, it should be safe, but keep in mind, organic or not, it’s still a chemical. Remember to pay close attention to any harvest restrictions that may result from applying the pesticide.
7. What kinds of things can people do early in the season to encourage good growth throughout the Spring and Summer?
As soon as the ground in thawed it is time to start tending to your hop crowns. As your hop plant gets older, the roots will start to spread. If you don’t want your hop plant to take over your yard, you should start to trim the roots back a bit in the early season. Those rhizomes can be replanted elsewhere if you want to expand your production.
Spring is also a good time to apply soil amendments such as composts and mulches. Composts release nutrients slowly, and so by putting it on in the spring, the nutrients will be there when the plant needs it most, in June and early July. As always, keeping up on weeding is a daunting task, but it’s easier when the weeds are little. Lastly, if you have irrigation make sure lines are in good working condition as it won’t be long before the plants start their rapid growth period.
8. What options are available to people without a lot of space? Could they use pots to grow hops? Do hops grow as well if they are trained horizontally — such as along a fence — as they do growing vertically?
Pots could probably be used to grow hops for at least a couple of years. Make sure to use a large pot because hops quickly develop a fairly extensive root structure. Hops grown in pots will also require at least daily watering. The potting soil dries out rapidly and the continuous watering will cause leaching of nutrients from the pots. Hence regular fertilizer application will be needed to support the growth of the hops. Remember you will still need to provide a support for the hop to twine. Hops grown along a fence will never reach maximum yield potential, since most of the cone production is on vertical growth, but you produce enough for a batch of homebrew.
9. How can you tell when hops are ready to harvest?
Hops are generally harvested in mid to late August and through September depending on the variety. The easiest way to tell if a hop cone is ready to harvest is to first look at its color. The cones will fade from a brilliant green to a paler color, a little yellow at the bottom. The cone should not be completely yellow or dry. The lupulin will change from a pale yellow to a dark yellow color, and become sticky. Next feel the cones, they should make a squishy, papery noise when you squeeze it and spring back to shape. Note that the entire plant won’t be uniformly ripe. On a small scale, it might be worth it to harvest in stages. Remember that it will take time for you to learn how to accurately judge hop ripeness.
10. What suggestions do you have for drying and storing hops after they’ve been harvested
You should start the drying process immediately following harvest and ideally completed within 12 hours of harvest. If you leave the hops in a container for more than a few hours, they will start to heat up and will quickly lose quality and may even start to mold. Remember that skunky hops brew skunky beer. When drying hops the goal is to force hot air (not over 140 F) through the hops evenly. A simple screen, box fan, and electric heater can work very well to dry hops.
Depending on their placement on the screen, the hops will dry at different rates, so it’s usually best to stir or mix them a few times during the drying process. Hops are usually harvested at around 80% moisture, and you want to get them down to 8% moisture. This will take some time, but is very dependent on relative humidity, air temperature, size of your fan, and the depth of hops on the screen. Be careful because if the hops get too dry, and if they are too wet, they’ll mold. Once dried and cooled the hops are ready to be packaged.
Harvested hop can be quickly degraded by oxygen, light, and temperature. For a small scale grower, a vacuum sealer will probably be sufficient, and then storing the packages in the freezer until you are ready to use them. It is best option is to use an opaque barrier bag if available. Generally, the light plastic bags sold with the vacuum sealers do not keep oxygen out of the hops.
11. Where can growers have their hops tested for alpha acid levels and other characteristics? If they come across wild hops, is there some way of determining what variety they are?
There are several laboratories that will test hops for quality. One lab is located at Hopunion in Yakima, WA. The cost of analysis can range from $25-35 per sample for alpha and beta acids. If you want to test cohumulone and other characteristics, the testing price becomes more expensive.
Many folks in New England are intrigued with the feral hop plants growing in the woods. Many folks want to know if these are old varieties of hops. A hops connoisseur may be able to visually identify specific varieties of hops. It is difficult to determine the variety of a wild hop plant. The best way is to use genetic testing which is extremely expensive. A recent historical investigation to evaluate the history of Vermont hops production was completed by Adam Krakowski for The Vermont Historical Society. In Vermont, there were numerous varieties grown, but sometimes the varieties were simply designated as “Joe’s hops” or “Bob’s hops”, which doesn’t tell us much about them.
There was also a lot of out crossing between traditional European varieties and wild American varieties. Unless you have historical records for the area where you found the hops, guessing the variety would be pretty much a shot in the dark. And even if you knew what the variety was called in 1850, it doesn’t necessarily tell you much about the hop, whether it’s a Golding descendant, or a wild American hop, or a variation of the two.
For more information and resources on hop growing in the Northeast please check out the UVM Extension Crop and Soils Website at http://www.uvm.edu/extension/cropsoil.