There are a lot of reasons to grow your own hops. Unique flavors, fresh hop beers, organic hops, and plain-old-fashioned badassery to name a few. This guide contains everything you need to know to grow hops successfully.
Hop growing starts with a rhizome being planted in early spring. After watering, feeding, and training, you’ll be rewarded with a harvest in autumn. If cared for properly, over the following years your hops will return again and again. And they will provide you with a wonderful, unique, hop character for your brews!
Look for pre-sales starting in January. Hop rhizomes typically get harvested in March. You can expect to have your hop rhizomes by the end of March or mid April at the latest depending on the source. Store your rhizomes in the fridge until you are ready to plant.
When you plant your hop rhizomes, depends on your location. You want to wait until the ground has thawed and there isn’t danger of a hard frost. Take a look here at this guide outlining the approximate last frost date for your area in the USA.
Where to Plant Them
Select a location that will receive a lot of sunlight. The more sun the better. Hops love sunshine! Typically, this means the southern side of your house or another south-facing location. Avoid areas where your plants will be shaded by trees, buildings, etc.
How to Plant the Rhizomes
Conventional advice is to make sure to space your hops out, three feet for like varieties and six feet for different types. If you have the space, do that. Anecdotally, I’ve grown hops spaced two feet apart without issue.
The reason for spacing is to allow enough room for the plant to grow and to avoid mixing hop varieties when harvesting. Dig a hole deep enough to allow the rhizome to be covered with 6 to 12 inches of soil.
When you place the Rhizome in the ground, you can orientate them either vertically or horizontally. Try to determine which direction the buds on the rhizome are going to grow and place in so they will grow vertically. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which way the buds are growing. don’t lose any sleep over it. Given the right environment…they will grow.
The first shoots that come out of the ground are called “bull shoots”…no joke. Commercial hop growers cut these shoots back to boost production. You’ll get more hops if you choose to trim the bull shoots but it’s not a requirement for a successful grow. If you’re feeling lazy or forget, don’t sweat it. You’re probably not a commercial grower that’s depending on a productive harvest for your livelihood.
In my experience, bull shoots show up in late May, a lot of vertical growth happens in June and July, and by August the hops are bushing out and forming cones. Your results will vary depending on hop variety, weather, soil health, and location.
On average, it takes 5-6 months to grow hops until they’re ready to harvest.
What to Feed Them
Soil health is vital for providing hops with the nutrients they need to grow. You could run out and buy a bag of fertilizer but that’s a short-term and, frankly, a short-sighted fix that will destroy the microbial life in your soil.
To ensure healthy soil, use a quality compost and mulch with organic matter. Many municipalities have free compost that your soil and hops will love! Leaves and grass work well for mulching. Avoid using only wood chips as that will lead to an imbalance in your soil.
If you really need a quick shot of nutrients, instead of chemical fertilizers, use a compost tea.
You want to water your hops frequently, depending on your annual rainfall. Hops can be over watered resulting in wet and rotting rhizomes. Inspect the plant and determine based on its appearance if it needs to be watered. In a dry climate like western Colorado, daily watering is recommended.
When to Train Them
Hops grow best when they are able to climb vertically. You will most likely want to install a trellis to allow them to climb. This isn’t required but at least plant them next to a fence or other structure to allow them to climb a little.
Hop farmers usually use twine tied to a wire trellis that is at least 18 feet tall. For the backyard, 12 – 14 feet is tall enough.
Once your hops grow past about 16 inches, they can be trained onto twine. You want to gently wrap the bine (yes, it’s a “bine” not a vine) around the twine in a clockwise fashion a few times. Hop bines have little sticky grabbers (my technical term) that will help them hold onto the twine. Once you train your hops they will really take off, growing as much as a foot in a day when the days are longest.
If you’re like me, you’ll get through summer and realize you’re not sure when you should pick your hops! Hopefully, you have a bit more foresight. Regardless, you’ll know your hops are ready for harvesting when they meet the following criteria:
- Typically, hops are ready for picking between the end of August to the end of September
- The color of the hop cone will transition from a bright green to a slightly duller hue and the edges may start to turn slightly brown.
- Unripe hops, when squished, won’t regain their shape. Ripe hops will be a bit drier and springy and will regain form quickly.
- Rub a cone and smell it. You want the typical “hoppy” aromas for your variety and not green, grassy, or vegetal aromas
- Finally, break a cone open and look for the sticky and yellow lupulin. You will see little yellow dots within the cone when they are ripe.
Knowing exactly when to pick your hops is a bit of an art. In general, It’s better to have overripe and under ripe hops. Learn from the process and have fun!
Using Wet Hops
Using wet hops, in my opinion, is the best way to utilize your home grown hops. It will produce a killer and rare beer. Plus it saves you the hassle of drying and storing hops.
How to Dry and Store Hops
If you must store them, you’ll want to dry them first. This can be done a lot of ways. Simply spreading them out on a bed sheet in your garage with a fan blowing on them may be one of the simplest and best options. You want to dry them until the cones are brittle but no further. Check them often while drying and vacuum seal and freeze them once dry.
Preparing for Winter
After harvesting hops, it’s ideal to leave your plant in place until late fall. This allows the plant to store up resources in the rhizome in order to survive the winter and come back strong in the spring. Cut off the bines at ground level once your plant is looking dead. Mulch over the top of the plant to provide a nice nutrient-rich blanket for winter. The bugs will still be working on that mulch and getting nutrients ready for next year while winter passes.
Hops grow best where days are long. That’s why you see them growing up in Yakima valley. Summer days in Washington are nice and long. This gives the hops plenty of sunlight to stimulate abundant growth.
This doesn’t mean you can’t grow hops in Alabama though. They just might not do as well. Humidity comes with a host of mold issues for hops. Some varieties will perform better than others in humid climates.
Hop like their heads wet and their feet dry. Make sure you plant them in soil with adequate drainage. No clay please but you don’t want total sand either.
Since you’re growing your hops at home and you can give them the special attention they deserve. Take the effort to grow them without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Your soil and your soul will thank you.
When you’re looking at hop varieties available for growing at home, you may be disappointed to see that sexy hops like Galaxy or Citra are not available. The primary reason for this is that they are proprietary hop varieties. Meaning someone owns the rights to all the genetic everything that makes up Galaxy.
The gist of all that is this. You can’t grow these proprietary varieties without a contract giving you permission to grow them. This is disappointing but there are still many amazing varieties available.
One exciting reason to grow many varieties of hops in your backyard is the fact that your hops will be unique. The flavors and aromas you will get growing hops in Colorado, for example, will be different than someone growing the same hop varietal in Iowa. Terroir is real!
A specific example of hop terroir is Chinook grown in Yakima, Washington vs. the state of Michigan. Washington Chinook has the characteristic piney aromas and flavors while when grown in Michigan it is decidedly pineapple-ly!
Where to Grow if Your Short on Space
I used to live in a small flat in China. Fortunately I had a tiny backyard to accommodate my hop plants. Not all are so lucky. If you’re short on space or don’t have a yard don’t despair.
You can grow hops in a planter and you can even grow them inside. If you choose to grow inside, choose the sunniest spot possible. For a trellis, consider constructing a zig-zag system that will allow you to grow your hops without needing an 18ft ceiling. During peak growth you’ll need to train your hops daily by gently wrapping them around your angerlar trellis. They’ll want to grow straight up, but with care, hops can be persuaded to grow at an angle.
Growing hops is a very rewarding process. It may require some effort, especially in the first years. Once you have your hops going you will be rewarded year after year with unique and truly fresh hops. I like to compare hops grown at home and picked fresh with vegetables. You’ll be hard pressed to find the same quality of tomatoes at the supermarket and the same is true for hops. So take the dive and take control over your hops…grow your own!