The Art of Growing Hops: There and Back Again

By Paul Triolo, last updated 6/18/14 11:11pm
Photos by Helen Triolo

  • The author examining his hops plants in early May.
    Photo credit: Helen Triolo
  • Closeup of a hop cone, and a bag of hops going into a batch of beer.
    Photo credit: Paul Triolo
  • Hops like to grow tall - ideally 20 ft if you can construct a trellis that high.
    Photo credit: Paul Triolo

Most people who drink beer regularly are probably unaware of the intense effort and resources that go into growing one of the amber liquid’s most important ingredients: the alpha and the omega (or more accurately, the alpha and the beta) of beer, aromatic and bitter, beautiful and sublime, high-growing Humuluslupulus, commonly known simply as "hops". Members of the hops family provide the primary flavor for most beers, and hops have been grown for centuries, acting as both preservative (for the legendary India Pale Ales shipped to India from Britain), and flavor and bouquet enhancer. Yet most drinkers remain unaware of where hops come from and how they are grown.

I was one such drinker (of ale, lager, and stout - among others!) until a few years ago, when my octogenarian uncle, an amateur and serious botanist and beer lover, and now member of the Northeast Hop Alliance (NEHA), became fascinated (to put it mildly) with the chemistry and cultivation of hops. Thus started a long and bitter (in the good sense of the word!) odyssey, including, along the way, endless tours of high-trellis and low-trellis hop yards, hop and microbrewery conferences, many journeys down the rabbit hole of hop varieties, and of course, the quaffing of large quantities of hopped-up beers, from the incomparable bitter/aromatic flavor balanced DD/DDD from Otto’s Brewery in State College, PA, to the fantastic Best Bitter brewed by Tom Barse at Milkhouse Brewery in Mt. Airy, MD (near Frederick), to the nuanced Hop Shot at Rockville nanobrewery Baying Hound Aleworks to some home brewing in Oley, PA, with a dozen or so varieties, including just shy of a pound of Cascade hops grown in my brother-in-law’s impressively conceived overnight hopyard, a modest high-trellis system that will likely be even more productive in what will be its third year. Hops, hardy perennials, generally don’t reach their full potential capacity until the third year.

What is it about hops?

Hops grow fast. You will be able to practically watch grow in your back yard. The hop's stem is called a bines, not vine. This means it uses its own shoots to act as supports for new growth, and grows in a helix around a support (vines climb using tendrils or suckers). The plant dies back in winter to cold-resistant rhizomes, and you will notice that it comes back quite strong after the first year, and stronger yet in the third year, hence the need to be prepared if you plan to grow some in your back yard. It likes to grow up to 20 feet so you need to give it space to go up.
Why grow hops? Well, there are many, many excellent reasons, but here are just a few:

1) You can use them in brewing your own beer, giving it a very personal touch.
2) They are a beautiful plant and fun to watch grow.
3) You can throw fresh hops into your favorite hoppy beer, making it even more explosively aromatic.
4) Should you grow large enough quantities (this is tricky, as we will see), local pico, nano, micro, or large breweries might want to take some fresh hops off your hands.

A brief history

The vast majority of hops in the U.S. are grown in Washington and Oregon, where the temperature and weather conditions are ideal, and the hops tend to be free from their most common enemy, powdery mildew and downy mildew. Other problems include spider mites and aphids, but don’t worry about these quite yet: small backyard operations tend not to have the serious problems that commercial growers must deal with. The hops grown in the western U.S. are on large farms, with hundreds of acres under cultivation, and the hops are processed mechanically, then pelletized for shipment.

Most hops used in beers are grown and processed in this way, but with the growth of small- and medium-sized breweries all over the country, and the desire to source local ingredients, small hop operations have begun sprouting up all over, and many microbrewers like Tom Barse at Milkhouse Brewery now use an appreciable amount of their own grown hops in their beers. Tom also buys hops from New York, which recently passed a home brewery law that mandates increasing percentages of locally grown ingredients, and now has nearly 100 acres of hops under cultivation. New York used to be a major hop growing area in the 19th century before the industry was wiped out by mildew and pests. The resurgence of hop growing in the east is fueled by the microbrewery craze, though as noted, growing large quantities of hops requires major investment in infrastructure and processing equipment. Tom also gets some hops from a large Oregon producer, and as a result can offer a wider variety of flavor choices in his beers.

Without getting too far down into the weeds (which, by the way, you do want to limit in your hopyard - Tom uses goats to keep them down) on hop chemistry, suffice it to say there are basically two major classes of hops: bittering and aromatic (though many are also “dual purpose” and can provide both characteristics). Beyond that, there are country-specific hops, some of which you can grow here, and some of which you cannot, either because they are not approved or because they are proprietary. Major countries that have their own hop varieties or versions of other well-known varieties include the U.K., France, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia (for example, see here).

Bittering and aromatic hops

Bittering hops provide that nice bitter flavor of IPAs, and some of the common U.S. varieties are Summit, Nugget, Magnum, Warrior, Columbus, and Galena; aromatics include Fuggle, Willamette, Cascade, Tahoma, Amarillo (which goes both ways also). Some well known dual-purpose hops are Centennial (my favorite: dry hopping will impart a nice grapefruit aroma), and Simco, known as a bittering hop with good aroma. Each of these varieties grows well under certain conditions, and you should do a little research to see what will grow best in your climatic zone.

The chemistry of hops that brewers need to know is quite complex, and boils down to the proportion of alpha and beta acids in each variety. There are many sites which will provide this type of information. For example, see here and here for a good overview of the main varieties.

So now you are ready to plunge in, where to start? There is a wealth of resources on-line. We recommend ordering plants from Freshops, after doing some research on varieties and deciding how much you want to plant. You can also pick up hops plants right now at the Rockville Whole Foods Market (thanks Joyce Gearhart for the heads-up about that).

The second phase is the infrastructure. On even one-acre commercial farms in New York, for example, the investment in 20-foot poles, high tension wire, and rope that the bines will helix up, can run to 10,000. For the backyard, though, a more modest system of garden fence posts, wire, and some sturdy string will do the trick. You need rope/string that will not swell and weaken when it gets wet. The bines will get pretty heavy in the second and third year, so you want something that will not fall over easily under weight. There are many ways to anchor poles/posts/tree trunks; try and get close to 20 feet high, run something sturdy over top, and tie on the rope [insert photos of Dave’s arrangement and ours].

Growing and processing your hops

Don't let yourself be daunted: in many ways, the growing part of hops is fairly easy, particularly on a small scale, where you likely won't have to contend with the pests that plague bigger operations. The processing part is slightly less easy, but only requires mechanical assistance once you get much over a ¼ acre, which is obviously more than most home operations will produce. In your backyard you can do it all by hand, and the trick is to pick at the right time, when the cone is papery and light, slightly drier than a green cone. If you are getting a lot of hop smell and your hands are slightly sticky when touching the cones (from the yellowish, powdery lupulin the hop produces) then the hop is ready to harvest. If you are home brewing you can grow enough to contribute substantially to your hops needs, and add a different type of hop flavor with the pelletized packets sold by most brewing stores.

Some suggestions for getting started

So, if you just want to have some fresh hops to enjoy the enhanced aroma, or want to consider starting a small-scale hops operation, the Internet is literally hopping with tools. Resources in the region include Tom Barse’s farm, where he grows a goodly amount of hops, and the NEHA. Commercial operations are another story, and the Northeast in general and Maryland in particular do not have much in the way of real commercial hop growing. In addition to the 100 or so acres under cultivation in New York, surrounding states like Vermont and Connecticut are beginning to put in some small-scale commercial operations, and some Virginia breweries, such as in Nelson County, have small-scale operations on the brewery grounds, for finishing hops.

Growing hops at the scale of one acre requires considerably more knowledge and investment, and I would recommend attending what have now become frequent hop growing and microbrewing conferences in places like New York, that bring together hops farmers, agricultural specialists, and microbrewers, and offer a wealth of practical knowledge in these areas.

Now hopefully you've read enough to get inspired to start thinking about your own humble hopyard. There is still time to put in a few plants this year, though the best time to begin is in the spring. Okay, now back to that Best Bitter from Milkhouse Farm, a very nicely hopped brew.

Filed under Home & Garden, Locally produced

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