So, you’re into this beer thing and you want to fly the flag of your enthusiasm. There’s a healthier way to do it than walking around all day with beer in hand (though that does have its merits). Instead you could grow hops, the plant whose flowering cones lend beer its pleasing bitterness.
You don’t have to be a farmer or homebrewer to be a hop grower. Anyone with a patch of decent dirt or a good sized planter can do it. And there’s no lovelier symbol of your beery commitment than a climbing bush filled with pungent hops growing outside your door.
It may seem premature to begin thinking of slicing into that frozen plot outside. It’s not. This is the time of year when hop sellers begin shipping rootstocks for hop plants. Luckily, we have a supplier in our area selling a variety of hop rhizomes at the best prices you’ll find.
Neil Sprangers owns and operates RiteBrew.com, an online homebrewing supply shop in Little Chute. For the past three years, he’s been selling hop rhizomes. He’s back at it again this year, offering eight varietals that do well in our climate.
Sprangers says people get the itch to plant hops for all kinds of reasons. “We had one guy who came in and bought 20-some rhizomes,” he says. “Basically, he just wanted a fence for his pool. He wanted to shield the neighbors out.” As a seasonal block that will fall back when the weather cools, hops are ideal.
The plants require little real estate, but will ascend to heights of over 20 feet if you give them room to climb. In
good soil they’re fast growers, sometimes adding 10-12 inches of fresh growth a day during spring and early summer. The foliage is dense, with broad, leathery leaves that are deep green and resemble the shape of maple leaves. The hop cones that develop in mid-to-late summer grow to about the size of a radish and smell like fresh IPA.
Growing hops requires little effort. Here’s a basic primer on how to begin.
Purchase your rhizomes. A couple will be enough to start with. If they arrive before you’re able to plant, store them in the refrigerator in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel. That’ll keep them moist and viable. If you’re looking for hop plants that will develop rapidly, Sprangers suggest growing Chinook or Nugget. “Those two tend to do really well around here in their first year,” he says.
When the ground is soft enough to dig into, it’s time to plant. Hops like sun, so locate a spot that gets plenty of exposure. They also prefer loose soil that they can burrow down into. Their roots want to go deep. Plant the rhizome just three of four inches below ground level and mound soil over it.
After the stems have sprouted and reached a height of 5 to 10 inches, give them something to climb on. Twine is cheap and easy to string up, but a trellis will work, too. The more vertical space you can give them, the happier they’ll be. Early on, you’ll need to train the bines (hop stems are called bines, not vines) onto the trellis or rope. Once you’ve shown them how, they’ll take to it on their own.
If you intend to use your hops for brewing, select two or three of the strongest bines and trim back the rest. The result will be heartier cones. If you’re growing hops for ornamentation, you can let them go as wild as you please.
Water from time to time, but don’t overdo it. Hops like moisture, but they don’t like wet feet.
Stand back and watch them grow. Sometimes a hop plant’s first year’s performance can be lackluster. That’s because most of its energy is going into its root system. By year two its rapid growth and vigor may shock you.
If your hops are for ornamental purposes, cut them back in late fall and spread mulch over the plot. They’ll come booming back next spring.
If you intend to brew with your hops, pick the cones in late summer / early fall. You’ll know the hops are ready by their piney aroma and the yellow resin called lupulin that forms within the cone. Sprangers says, “Smelling them tells you more than anything.” After you’ve picked the cones, you’ll need to dry them.
Spread the cones on a screen or table in a well ventilated, dry area. When they have dried to ¼ to ⅕ of their wet weight, they’re ready. No need to be too technical about it. When the cones feel papery they’re dry enough. If you can, package them in a vacuum sealed bag and store them in the freezer. If that’s not possible, pack them tightly in brown-paper bags and keep them in an area that’s dry and cool.
The yield can be bountiful, especially after the first year. “I wound up getting 11 pounds of dried hops last year,” says Sprangers, who has 10 plants growing in the hop yard behind his home. “I’ll use them a lot for keg hopping,” he says. “If an IPA starts to get old and a little boring, I’ll put them in a stainless steel mesh keg hopper and toss them right in the keg.”
For homebrewers like Sprangers, the benefit of growing hops is obvious. There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of drinking a beer you’ve made with hops you’ve grown. But there’s another aspect of hop growing that’s somewhat less tangible, though more enduring.
Raising hops is part of our heritage in Oshkosh. The first hop yards in our city sprang up in the early 1850s. By the 1870s, Winnebago County was home to some of the most productive hop farms in Wisconsin. Hops are more than just a plant. They’re a green and growing reminder of our beer soaked past.
Images are from the authors collection.