I’ve only been homebrewing for a couple of years now, but since I’ve been living with a green thumb and botanist for five years, it was natural to start wondering how hard it could be to grow some of the ingredients of beer myself. The four basic ingredients of beer are simply water, yeast, hops, and barley (and by the way, if you go by the 1554 German purity law, that’s ALL you put in your beer). I’d heard about people growing hops before, but not in Tucson. The archetypal regions for hops cultivation are the Pacific Northwest and places like the Czech Republic and Austria. Folks at local plant nurseries told me it could not be done here in the desert. Guides to growing them that I found online said that the 35th parallel is the furthest south they would grow, and we’re at only 32. But, I stumbled across the blog of a homebrewer on the north side who had successfully grown some the summer before, and that was enough encouragement for me.
We ordered four strains from a place in Michigan and I waited eagerly for the rhizomes to show up in the mail. Hops do reproduce via seed, and can also be grafted sort of like trees, but the primary way they’re propagated is via the root balls or rhizomes, which naturally enlarge and spread underground. Hops nurseries will dig up and chop off chunks of root from their existing plants and send them off to customers. The plants are perennial vines that kick into gear every spring up north from late April and are harvested in September. Then the vines are cut back and the plants go dormant for the winter. I was anxious to get my rhizomes in the ground earlier, since things are a bit different down here, but I ended up receiving them right at the end of March and had time to plant them a couple weeks later.
Since we don’t own our house and I wanted to be able to take them with us, I planted my hops in big buckets with a mix of potting soil, compost, and regular dirt from the yard. The main thing everyone says about growing hops is that they need plenty of water. This would of course be especially challenging here in the desert. I basically treated them like newly-planted trees and kept them moist in their well-drained soil. At first I set up a sort of DIY irrigation system on a timer, kludged together out of old hoses and tubes we found when we moved in years ago. But since I work from home and have the ability to go out and check the garden frequently, it turned out to be easier and less wasteful to just water by hand a couple times a day.
Other than the watering, hops turned out to be incredibly easy to grow, and it’s an amazing plant because once it sprouts it grows incredibly fast, sometimes a few inches a day at the start of the season. The only other work to it is trimming back unwanted vines, and setting up something for the wanted vines to climb. The plant is quite frequently shooting out more vines, but you want to make it concentrate its energy on just 3 or 4 so that good healthy cones will be produced on those. In prime hops-growing regions, the vine can get up to 25 feet tall, and commercial farms have huge grids of wire elevated on tall poles (see my video about an Idaho hops growing operation below). I ended up putting wooden stakes next to each plant with holes drilled in them, then tying twine through those holes and stringing the twine up to the roof. When the vines get long enough, you have to “train” them – meaning you wind them carefully, clockwise, around the twine in order to get them started climbing. As the vine follows the sun across the sky every day, it grows up and around the twine.
The growing season here in Southern Arid Zone turned out to be quite accelerated compared to chillier, wetter areas up north. By the middle of June, several of my vines had reached the roof and showed sings of continuing higher. I nailed up wooden poles with more twine attached so that they had more room to grow, although it turned out that most of them burned in the intense sun once they got past the level of the roof. The strains I planted were Cascade, Mount Hood, Williamette, and Hallertauer, and there was definitely much variation in how each did. The Cascade was the winner on all fronts, growing the fastest, the highest, and producing the most and biggest and most fragrant cones. The Hallertauer and Mt. Hood varieties yielded smaller cones and quite a bit less of them than the Cascade, while the Williamette didn’t produce a single mature cone at all.
By July I was harvesting some of the Cascade cones, and I continued to pick them as they ripened through the middle of August. The right time is a bit difficult to figure out, but if you pay attention you see the cones go from a deeper green to a lighter shade, the yellow powder inside develops, and the cone becomes drier without being crumbly. Commercial growers pick a sort of average time when most cones are ready and then cut them all down at once, but doing things on a small scale means you can pick a few at a time and get them right when they’re perfect. After harvesting, the cones need to be dried for a day or two and then stored in bags or containers to prevent oxidation until use. Freezing them helps them last longer.
I ended up getting just enough cones to make one five-gallon batch of relatively hoppy pale ale in late September. The first year is, they say, always low yield, so it will be interesting to see how they do this year. Now that I already have the plants, I’m ready much sooner to get them growing again. I decided to transplant one of the Cascades into the ground, and I’ll soon be moving the rest in their pots back into place where they’ll get more sun, and then will start watering them regularly (in the winter dormancy they only need to get water every couple weeks or so).
If you’re interested in trying to grow hops, there’s still time to order your rhizomes! You can get them at Fresh Hops, or at homebrewing.org (where I ordered mine), or from a variety of other outlets easily located online.
A short video of mine from last fall about how hops are grown on a much larger scale:
My next post will be about this year’s homebrew/gardening experiment: growing barley…