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Hops have been cultivated for thousands of years. Many of the hops available to homebrewers come from family farms that span many generations. When harvest time came, all hands were required to pick the fragrant and valuable cone-like flowers that play such a crucial role in making beer.
If you live in the right climate, you can cultivate hops to give your homebrew that extra special DIY flavor. In Stan Hieronymous’ book, For The Love Of Hops, he gives detailed insight into what Henry VIII called “a wicked and pernicious weed.”
10 Factors to Consider when Growing Hops at Home
1. Check The Map
One major limit to growing hops at home is the climate where you live. For your hops to thrive, they need about 15 hours of daylight per day, and a growing season that lasts at least 120 days without a frost. Hops also need a dormant season where temperatures drop below 40 degrees fahrenheit. While you can technically grow them elsewhere, hops tend to grow best and deliver the greatest yields between the 30th and 52nd latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, which roughly spans the Northern U.S. and Canada across Europe and Asia.
2. How To Buy Hop Rhizomes
When you purchase a hop plant from a homebrew store, nursery or online shop, you’re actually buying a root system called a rhizome. Check with your vendor to make sure you’re getting a variety of hops that is well adapted to your home climate.
3. Where To Plant Hop Rhizomes
Hops like to climb, and they like the sun. You’ll need to find a suitable spot to plant your rhizome that allows plenty of room for vertical growth (15-20 feet) and is southward facing to maximize exposure to the sun. When hop bines start growing, they need to reach a height of about 18 feet before they can flower. Unlike a vine that has suckers to help it climb, a bine relies on a bristly and rough stem to support its growth. You can help your hops along by building a trellis or by stringing a top wire with strings attached like rungs of a ladder that your bines can grow up. Or you can simply plant them alongside a tall pole with strings attached to the top.
Another method is to train the hops laterally along a fence. This might be better for someone who doesn’t want huge hop trellises in their backyard.
4. Ideal Soil Conditions for Growing Hops
Hops prefer loose, slightly acidic soil that drains well. Dig a hole deep and wide enough for the roots to burrow.
5. Stages Of Hop Growth
Every hop plant will follow the same growing cycle each season: dormancy, spring regrowth, vegetative growth, reproductive growth, cone formation, and preparation for dormancy.
6. How To Plant Hops At Home
When you’ve chosen your planting area and your soil is prepared, it’s time to plant your rhizomes. Sprouts should be facing up with the roots planted into the dirt. To help drainage, mound the soil around the rhizome at least a foot high or so. If you’re planting more than one rhizome, space them at least three feet apart.
7. How To Train Homegrown Hops
As your hops begin to grow, you’ll want to select only the healthiest 4-5 bines to limit resource competition, and pluck any other tendrils that might sprout. Train these around the strings you set up and watch them climb. This is a good time to add organic fertilizer to the soil to help give your plants a boost.
8. When Should I Water My Hops?
Your goal should be to keep the soil moist around your plants. Hops like water, but they can rot if they get too wet. Allow the surface of the soil to become nearly dry between watering. Remove any weeds that might be growing up next to your plant and watch out for signs of illness or insects.
9. How To Harvest Hops
Hops are ready to harvest when the flowers or cones sprout on the bines. You’re probably not going to reap a large harvest of cones your first year – or maybe even your second harvest. But when you do get cones, they will be easy to pluck off the bines. While it’s tempting to cut down the entire bine to make harvesting simpler, you might impact your plants preparations for going dormant so it’s best to leave them hanging for as long as you can. Then you can use a ladder to help lower your pole to make harvesting easy and safe.
10. How To Dry And Store Your Hops
Once you harvest your hops, you will need to dry them as quickly as possible to avoid rotting. Here are a few methods to dry out your hops.
Food dehydrator: An easy way to dry hops at a fairly even temperature is to use a food dehydrator. However, you'll need to make sure that your dehydrator temperature doesn't exceed 140F because the hops will begin to lose their aromatic qualities at temps above that.
Oven: You can use an oven to dry your hops by spreading them out on a pan. You will need a well-ventilated oven to make this work as you’re interested in airflow more than heat.
Hop drying screen: You can also use a window screen or a house air filter to dry smaller amounts of hops. Put a fan underneath to draw air down through the hops and place it out in the sun for a few days.
Once they’re dried, it’s best to vacuum-seal your hops to help preserve them. Once sealed, pop them in the freezer until you’re ready to brew beer.
11. Preparing Your Hops For Next Year
As soon as the first frost hits, you can start pruning back your bines. Leave a little bit of the stem at the base and then cover it with mulch. When spring returns, uncover the top of your plants to prepare for the next growing season. If you want to use fertilizer, now is a good time to add it to the soil.
Common Threats for Homegrown Hops
Like any agricultural product, you have to watch out for Mother Nature’s attempts to ruin your harvest. Here are some of the most common threats for hop cultivation:
When a hop plant is infected with this fungus, which originated in Japan, the shoots will become stunted, brittle, and lighter in color than healthy ones. Infected shoots are also unable to climb and can quickly begin to rot. If you are experiencing a particularly wet growing season, you might also find your flowers and cones rotting as well.
The telltale signs of this fungus are the “powdery” white colonies that form on the leaves, bus, stems, and cones of your plants.
If you notice your cones turning suddenly brown, you may have been invaded by an army of tiny aphids that leave behind a sooty mold in their wake. Aphids may also transfer viruses between plants.
Even smaller than aphids, these mites will attempt to suck your plants dry. They are particularly dangerous during dry seasons when you’ve overlooked watering your plants. You might see a loss of leaves with tiny webs left behind.
If your plants begin to suffer from any of these pests, you can remove them by picking them off or spraying with a hose. If that fails, you can make a visit to your local nursery or garden supply store to find out what kind of organic pesticides (such as neem oil) you may use to get rid of unruly pests.
Is Growing Hops At Home Worth It?
Growing anything at home—including hops—requires patience and persistence. Ultimately it’s a wonderful feeling to know you’ve brewed beer using hops that came straight from your garden - plus, you’ll definitely impress your family and friends when they ask you why your beer tastes so fresh!