Introduction: Growing Hops at Home

About: Hey there! My name is Chris and I live in Massachusetts. I have been a teacher since 2006 and love the fact that I have the opportunity to bring real-world, hands-on skills to my students. I love learning new …

"I like beer. It makes me a jolly good fellow. I like beer. It helps me unwind and sometimes it makes me feel mellow."

Some solid lyrics by Tom T. Hall. But in all honesty, I do like beer and part of the reason why it can make you feel so mellow is because of one magic ingredient...C21H30O5... or humulone... or how about hops?

Hops are a pretty awesome plant. Even its scientific name is fun to say, Humulus lupulus. I have been growing hops at my house for the past eleven years and I thought I would share how I do it so that you too can try your hand at growing hops for your home brew, to sell, or just because they are beautiful plants.

Step 1: Sourcing Your Hop Rhizomes

I live in central Massachusetts. Hops have always grown in MA, even before colonists, and the like headed over to the new world with their own rhizomes clutched in their very dapper arms. In fact, colonists didn't even really tap into the wild hops growing in the northeast at the onset of brewing in the New World during the 1600's. Other adjuncts were used ranging from spruce needles to wildflowers. You probably remember learning about the East India Company in high school. Lots of talk about silks and teas but nary a discussion about beer... maybe not so school appropriate? Well, super short history that will only take a second, the English were in India and were sick and tired (literally and figuratively) of either not getting the beer coming in from England because it spoiled or leaked out of the barrels, or getting the beer and ending up having to drink dark, sweet, heavy porter in a hot tropical environment. Hops were the game changer! They added a freshness to a lighter bodied beer and they acted as an impressive preservative. They didn't stop the barrel leaks, I just think they needed a few better coopers, but the folks over in India were getting the good stuff when it did arrive.

Fast forward to today and we are still employing this noble cone for similar reasons. It adds a refreshing flavor and bitterness to beer to counteract the sweetness and it adds significant preservative nature to the brew. Breweries like the Alchemist just north of us kicked it up a notch and found methods to dump even more of the lupulin properties into their beer producing brews like Headytopper. Treehouse brewery is about 30 minutes from us and they have even taken it further, seemingly putting a million hops cones in one can.

Oops, that was definitely a side trip... back to where you gotta get your own hops. So, I ordered my hops from about eleven years ago and spent a walloping $30 on all of my rhizomes. Over the past nine years I have had literally pounds of hops produced from the rhizomes and I have shared cuttings of my rhizomes with a ton of my friends and even sold some of the rhizomes myself. In other words, the $30 was quickly paid off. One of the most important considerations to make when selecting your hop varietals is how well they will fit into your specific climate. There are certain hop types that just don't grow well here and then there are others that flourish. I initially grew galena, Willamette, and nugget. The nugget took right off, the Willamette was slow but ultimately did really well, and the galena, well... died. I replaced the galena with cascade hops and haven't looked back. Cascades grow amazingly here in MA and I have been able to pass on tons or rhizomes to friends. Whatever you do grow, expect some to work great and some to either lag way behind or not even grow.

Step 2: Some Tucking in Necessary! - Preparing Your Hop's (hops) Bed

Hops are pretty hardy plants. Once they are established they will grow roots and rhizomes quickly using their solar collectors (leaves) to produce all the sugars necessary to complete all life functions. With this being said, hops need more than just sunlight, they need all of the necessary elements in the forms of minerals and vitamins for them to grow rapidly with thick woody stems. Those elements allow the plant to grow skyward, twining itself around the training string you will be using. I have seen my plants grow an entire foot in one day! My trellis is 16' tall and just yesterday (June 4th) some of my hop bines (the separate vines coming from the main root/rhizome) reached the top of the trellis wire. This requires a lot photosynthesis to go on and one of the main ingredients for photosynthesis is water! Hops require a lot of water to grow properly, and then plenty of water while they are producing cones. That water is going to have to move up through the stem at least 16' vertically to reach many of the cones.

So, with all of this in mind, your hop bed needs to have some key components to ensure a great hop harvest.

  1. Rich, loamy soil with a depth of at least 12 - 16".
  2. Three feet of space between each hop rhizome you plan on planting
  3. Plenty of water available, especially if there is a tendency for the area to go through droughts or become drier due to wind / lack of humidity

I put my hop bed directly in front of my chicken coop, at the top of a hill. I ended up removing the majority of the top soil since it was relatively poor fill that was put there when our house was built. Below this thin layer of top soil was almost entirely sand. I ended up removing about 16" of sand. I did this for 35' long by about 2' wide. I then used some loam I had delivered to fill in the trench. The pictures above are not of the initial hop bed but are of the hop bed after I exhumed the roots/rhizomes to move them and split them up. This was only three years after planting them and you can see how enormous they are (they were only a little 4" stem when I got them). I ended up using some seaweed/fish/kelp emulsion applied directly on the rhizomes to help boost their growth.

The rhizomes should be planted about 1" deep in the soil with the little growing nubbins pointing straight up. You will likely plant the rhizome horizontally and should have at least three good little nubbins to start your plants.

Step 3: Rise and Shine! - Trellising Your Hops - Setting the Posts

One of the most important things to consider when siting your hops bed is where you can put them where they will get a ton of sunlight, can grow at least 16' tall, and where they won't block the sun from anything else you are growing. If you are growing multiple rows of hops you'll need to space them the same width as the height of your trellis posts to prevent shading. I planted our hops directly in front of our chicken coop because they would receive direct sunlight for at least 8 hours and they would also act as a sun-block for the chicken coop, keeping it cooler in the hot summer.

I used 20' tall posts to make my trellis. You could probably source posts like this from a local farmer's co-op or a fence company, but even then it will be tough to find such tall posts and they might be very expensive. Since hops are a perennial and you cut down the vines every year I don't think it is as important to have permanent posts made from pressure treated wood or even rot-resistant woods like cedar. I ended up using posts that I procured directly from my woods. A couple of straight 6" wide ash and hickory trees that had to be removed for our garden. I put these posts in nearly 6 years ago and they are still standing strong. I did put my posts in that sandy soil that was used as backfill for our house, so the chances of them rotting were definitely much less compared to sinking them into a deep layer of wet clay or even nice loamy soil with lots of oxygen for bacteria and fungi to nibble on the cellulose of the posts.

The posts should be sunk into the ground at least 40" and preferably 48" if possible. You will want to put the posts in the ground set 15 degrees off of vertical, splayed away from each other. Before you put the posts into your holes you will want to hammer in a few 3" fence staples in a row at the very top of the posts. You will pass your trellis cable through these staples so that the cable stays on top of the posts. Pack the soil back around the posts after you have dug your holes and set them in the ground.

Note** If you don't want to use a ladder to run your cables across the top of your posts or use a long pole to push the cable through you can run the cables now (see the next step) before setting your posts in the ground.

Step 4: Rise and Shine! - Trellising Your Hops - Running the Cable

I used 10 gauge stainless steel braided cable for my trellis wire. Along with the appropriate length of cable you will need ground anchors (one for each side), cable clamps (at least four), and a turnbuckle or other strainer (at least one).

For ground anchors I used simple 18" long Earth screws like you would use for a dog run. They were cheap ($4 each) and I have used them for the last six years with no problems at all. They are easy to remove at the end of the season and they hold the cable fine. Remember, I grow these for myself and not as a farm or professional grower and my hop garden is only 35' long. If you are doing a longer run you will need more substantial anchors.

The anchors are screwed into the ground about 3' away from the base of the posts. I use one cable clamp to make a loop at one end of the wire with plenty of extra wire on the tail end to be able to pull things into place later. I hook that end of the wire onto one of the anchors. The opposing end I leave more than enough length, up to 12 extra feet. This is important so that you can easily drop the wire down to the ground without losing the end of your wire through the top of the post. I pass a cable clamp down 12 feet or so and then tuck the tail end through to make a loop about 12' down the line. Get your strainer or turnbuckle ready and extend it to its greatest extent and slip it over the anchor in the ground. You want to pull the trellis wire tight and at this point you want this end of the wire to hook on to the turnbuckle. Once you've got everything set and you are certain that you will be able to tighten the turnbuckle to tension up the wire, you can disconnect the loop from the turnbuckle and drop the wire to the ground for the next step. You can also leave the turnbuckle attached (mine had loops at both ends so I had to use the cable clamp after the turnbuckle (see the pictures). I then used a long metal conduit with a hook in the end to grab hold of the loop on the turnbuckle to pull it back down and reattach it.

Step 5: Rise and Shine! - Trellising Your Hops - Running the Ropes

I use a big roll of sisal twine (baling twine) each year with my garden and the hops. This stuff is great. Lasts the complete season, it's strong, and decomposes in the compost. Oh yeah, and its cheap. Before tying off to the wire I make sure to put a log along the entire length of hop bed. I usually have this in place before the hops pop out of the soil so that they can grow around the log. I then pound in about ten staples spaced out 3" each for each hop rhizome I have planted. You will be tying down the twine to these staples.

Your wire should already be dropped down so you can easily (or at least more easily) access it. You will need to cut twine lengths for each rhizome planted. I space the twine pieces about 1" apart each and cut 30 of them for the three sets of hops I have planted. I have found that the easiest way to cut all of these pieces is to put a stake hammered into the ground, slip your sisal twine ball (they always have a hole through the middle of the twine) over the top and then mark out a spot that is 18' away from it with another stake. You are going to pull the line of the sisal out to that stake, walk back to the ball and cut it, then repeat. I don't know if this is the fastest method but it works really well for me. After I get 30 pieces cut I then tie each one a foot away from each other along the wire.

Now pull down on your tail end and reconnect your turnbuckle. Tighten the turnbuckle until the wire is taut and you should see the strings hanging down. You will then tie the hanging ends to the staples. This gives my hop bed three fans of strings radiating up from the log with the staples.

Note** I use a small piece of tape to mark the exact locations where the wire is found between the two posts. This makes putting the strings in the correct starting and ending locations that much easier.

Step 6: They Grow Up So Fast - Training and Growing Your Hops

The first hop shoots should pop up pretty early, sometimes even in mid-April before much of anything else has exploded out of the ground. You are going to want to start training your hop bines onto the lines as soon as possible. The Earth spins counterclockwise on its axis so you will want to gently wrap the hop bines around the twine in a clockwise motion. It's best to do this on a warmish day so the hops are nice and flexible. Once you have the hops initially trained they will continue their revolution around the twine on their own.

Step 7: Time to Get a Job! - Harvesting the Bounty

Like I mentioned earlier, the hops will grow rapidly skyward. They can grow up to 30' long in a given season but at a certain point they will stop with their gravity-defying growth and start to grow hop cones. The first little hop cones look like hairy little flowers. At this point you want to keep an eye out for hungry caterpillars, Japanese beetles, and other hop munchers. I use neem oil and sometimes pyrethrin on the hops to quickly remove any pests and prevent further pests.

To pick the hops you can either drop the line to the ground or you can cut the lines up by the trellis wire. This is easily done with the conduit pole I use with a knife duck taped to the top. I typically will leave them up for a bit to pick the lower hops and since my son has been helping me the past couple of years it is nice to leave up so he can pick them easier. Once we can no longer reach the hops or it is a pain I will typically cut the lines from above with my long pipe tool thing and then drop them to the ground. From here you can chop the hops up into 5' sections so that you can pick them in the shade, on a porch, or anywhere else that would be more comfortable. Heads up on this... hop vines are really rough on the hands and arms. The vines have sharp serrations on them that can make you pretty uncomfortable.

We will put the hops into large plastic containers for the time being and prepare them for going onto the drying racks.

Step 8: How to Dry the Hops

I dry the hops on simple drying racks I made. They each nest into each other to save space and are made from a scrap wood frame with 1/4" mesh hardware cloth stapled to the bottoms. I have three of them and have been able to effectively dry all of the hops that I collect each year. Spread the hop cones out on the screen only up to a depth of about 1-1/2" and then put the screens on top of each other (last pic) in an area that is not in direct sunlight all day but is not completely in the shade (the East side of our house works great). The hops will take about three days to dry out and at that point I pack them into gallon ziploc bags, squeeze all the air out of them, label them, and then toss them into the freezer to help preserve them. You can, and should, make a wet-hopped IPA with them since the flavor is fantastic and extremely fresh!

Step 9: Using the Hops and Preparing for Next Year

Over the years I have had to only buy hops when I want a really specific variety. I love all of the amazing hops that are being cultivated out on the West Coast but I gotta say that there is something amazing about making beer with your own ingredients. I purchase all of my grain locally too from and their grain combined with the local hops makes a truly fantastic brew!

To prepare your bed for next year you will need to cut your hop bines to the soil's surface. This will prevent any possible diseases, viruses, bacteria, or fungal infections from staying on last year's leaves. I burn the vines and leaves each year to really prevent any persistent issues that could ever arise.

The hops are usually good for one entire year if kept in the freezer. I will gift some out, but I do so only occasionally since they are such a time-consuming thing to pick. I have given friends small sachets (that's a fun word) of them too since they smell great and often do some weird stuff to your dreams.

All in all, hops are an easy to grow garden plant. Even if you don't really love IPAs (that would be kind of sad) the plants themselves are beautiful and are an attractive addition to any garden. If you have any questions or thoughts please don't hesitate to send them my way. Thanks!! - Chris

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