Zymurgy Spring 1986

Suburban Hop Farming

By Rich Wagner

In February 1985, members of HOPS (Homebrewers of Philadelphia and Suburbs) began thinking about growing hops. Means of obtaining rhizomes were explored, and a club order was placed with a commercial distributor. Concerned that the order might not be filled, Rich Wagner called Rich Dochter in Lock Haven about the possibility of getting roots from friends who had rather prolific hops growing in their garden. Dochter dug up some of the roots at the end of March, after the ground had thawed and they were planted on April 10. Stakes were driven into the ground next to each rhizome. Within about two weeks, green shoots began to emerge from the soil. A total of 10 root cuttings were planted and all produced plants. Several weeks later, poles were erected and spanned with heavy wire. The trellis was made by tying string to a stake and looping it up and over the wire and attaching it to each adjacent stake.

Once the vines had climbed to the top of the string they began growing along the wire at the top of the trellis. By July 13, flowers had begun forming on all vines. Unfortunately, one vine was lost to insects (aphids?) and another to careless weeding. Two rhizomes were planted from the commercial dealer. Only one, the Cascade, grew. It only reached a height of about five feet and did not flower. This was in keeping with what the literature stated about first-year hop plants. It seemed that the vigorous growth from the other eight plants was unusual. The plants that were cultivated in Pennsylvania grew for several years and may have become acclimated to the region, which might account for their success.

Within a week or two, the flowers began to turn into "cones." "Bracteoles" replaced the spiked flower "petals" near the base of the flower and developed upward until the cone completely formed. Lupulin was in evidence by August 10.

The following week Rich picked a bread bag of cones that had opened up slightly. Half were dried in a neighbor's microwave oven. This yielded about 2 .5 ounces of dried hops. The remainder were spread on the floor in the basement where they dried well in one week.

The following week four pounds of fresh hop were collected and placed on screened racks in the attic to dry. The cones completely dried in two days. As recommended, the hops were exposed to the atmosphere to pick up some moisture and bagged immediately, squeezing as much air as possible out of the bags before sealing. This yielded 13.25 ounces of dried hops. Subsequent pickings yielded 6.75 ounces and 3.5 ounces of dried hops.

One source of information stated that the entire plant should be cut and the cones picked from the vine. By not plucking the plant out of the ground it was possible to allow more cones to develop and mature. In fact, while ha rvesting it was evident that new flowers were forming on some of the plants.

The literature also stated that the bottom three feet of the plant should be stripped of leaves to cut down on damage from insects and wilt that begins at the base of the plant. This was not done. In addition, it was recommended that only the most vigorous shoots be permitted to grow. After not following this advice, the garden surrounding the trellised plants became covered with a mat of vines, curling around weeds and tomato plants. These ground creepers also produced cones. The yield was approximately 30 ounces of dried hops. Not bad for a first year crop. If that's small, next year's crop should be substantially larger.

The basic problem remaining was the fact that the type of hops was not known. The folks who cultivated them originally did obtain them from a commercial supplier, but since they never got around to making beer, they did not remember what variety they were. The aroma is not an overpowering Saaz or Tettnanger. The current guess is that they are Cascade hops. Perhaps the answer eventually would be found in the beer brewed with them.

It should be noted that these plants were grown in a well-fertilized garden that had been planted in soybeans the previous year and heavily manured for the past five. The neighbor with the microwave also sold Rich some "Shaklee's Basic H" which, when heavily diluted, may be added as a soil conditioner to help retain moisture. Lastly, pesticides were used in the form of a detergent spray, probably similar to what was used by the hop industry in the past.

In retrospect, the almost two pounds of hops produced would probably wholesale for about two dollars! Aside from the satisfaction of brewing with hops you've grown, was it worth it? It was educational and enriching to watch the hop plant through its life cycle, harvest and dry the crop and plan intricate trellis mazes for next year's vines

Many questions remain, namely, just what kind of hops were they? Could you pick hops from the vine and boil them fresh while brewing in the backyard? What are the best methods for combating wilt and insect damage? Suburban hop farming is something that was going on in Pennsylvania during the time of William Penn. In addition to being an ornamental plant, it can provide the homebrewer with "the freshest hops in town."