Growing hops is possible in almost every one of the United States of America. Hops obviously exist in Europe, Asia and other locations but I will stick with what I am familiar with, the USA. To grow hops you generally must be between the 35th and 55th parallel (see diagram below) elevation may make it possible to grow hops at slightly lower lattitudes. I have even read of people growing hops in Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Florida (well outside of the 35 to 55 lattitudes). Some varieties of hops do better than others in the extremes of this range (some like it hot, some not). Currently, the northwest USA produces the largest crop of hops plants (Oregon, Washington Northern California…).
Hops (Humulus Lupulus) are a fast growing vine (referred to as bine) that requires large amounts of sunshine and nutrients from the soil to sustain their rapid growth. Hop bines can grow up to 30 ft in length. A perennial, which dies back every winter to the root stock also known as the crown. Hop plants can be grown from hop rhizomes (underground stems) or seed (but usually hops rhizomes – only want female hop rhizomes). Hop plantings are generally grown vertically but can be grown horizontally. Most Hops plants require a 4 month growing season.
Only the female hop plants flower (the flower is the hop). Males are used for pollination to seed the females but generally un-pollinated or seedless hops are preferred for brewing. Beer hops are used for brewing beers and ales to counteract the sweetness of the barley, to provide aroma and also works as a preservative. Hops have medicinal qualities and calming effects but that is out of scope for this blog.
Planting hops requires a nutrient dense, well drained soil with a PH between 6 and 8. Most hop growers go vertical with their plants so that must taken into consideration for planting. Since most people (at least in the cities) have a 1/4 acre or less, use a side of their house, garage, deck or tall poles and twine or rope. Running twine from the ground to a roof line or overhang is very popular. A common configuration is twine from a ground anchor to an eyelet attached high on a pole, house, garage or other building and zigzagged up and down (using a latch hook on the high end for easy removal). If using a single pole, it would be a tee pee configuration. There are many ways to rig the vines but rope seems to work the best compared to trellises when it comes to harvest time.
Soil should be prepared at least a couple weeks (the previous season is better) before planting to allow the soil amendments to blend together. Soil should be dug down a foot or more to ensure the root stock can grow unimpeded. The soil should be mixed with organic materials (I am an organic kind of guy). Decomposed manure, compost, leaves and/or grass clippings and wood ashes are all good soil amendments for hop gardens. Drainage is very important for hop plants so be aware of slopes and valleys in the ground. If planting against a house or garage without gutters (on the down slope side) beware the roof runoff. A raised mound and drainage paths help in these cases and is a good idea for all hop planting.
Most hops are propagated from rhizomes, so that is what I will cover (besides I have never started from seed). If you have a short growing season, you can start hop rhizomes indoors. Once the threat of frost has passed, it is time to plant. Plant 1 to 3 hop rhizomes in a grouping or mound (1 is usually sufficient), 1 to 4 inches below the soil’s surface (I go 3 to 4 inches deep). Plant buds up and mounds about 3 feet apart, more (minimum 5 feet) if the next grouping is a different variety of hops.
When the shoots break ground and are about 1 foot long, select 1 to 3 of the hardiest hop bines (similar to, but different from vines) and train them to climb the rope in the same direction – most advise clockwise (not sure why). Like everything, there are different ways to go about this, either 1 pole or rope per mound or 1 on each side of the mound (2 ropes/twine) per mound – prune all other bines to focus all the growing energy to the selected bines. Difference between bines and vines: vines send out grasping shoots. Bines use stiff hairlike follicles and wrapping around things to support themselves.
Depending on when you started or when the existing crowns started bines, the hops should be ready for harvest around mid August to mid September. When mature, the hops will be squeezable rather than solid and have a paper like texture. When you determine it is harvesting time, bring down the ropes or poles and pluck the hops from the vines. The hops must be dried, either in a dehydrator, an oven no more than 140 degrees (with the door open) or at room temp spread out on a single layer on a raised screen to allow airflow. Keep away from direct sunlight as that will affect the properties and freshness of the hop cones. Room temp drying is best for retaining flavor and aroma.
Once dried, the hops should be vacuum sealed and frozen for best results or fresh hops may be used immediately (after drying the hops). If not vacuum sealed, at least remove as much air as you can from a sealable freezer bag and then freeze. Shield the hops from light as that will prolong freshness also.
This is a bit abbreviated but gives you enough information to grow your own hops! Read some books on how to grow your own hops and/or do some more Internet research to gain additional tips, tricks, methods and theories to maximize your hop growing abilities. Just say no to hop drought and start growing hops.