Every homebrewer has at one time or another thought about the possibility of growing their own hops. Firstly there is the cost saving, buying hops does add up. Adding to the cost factor is one element very dear to every home brewers heart, control. After all one of the reasons many of us took up brewing at home was for control over our beer. How much will adding a few extra hops to this IPA recipe affect the taste? It’s a thought process like this that leads to us growing our own hops. How do the growing conditions of your hops affect the finished ale? Lets find out.
What exactly is a hop?
We’ve all used hops extensively and know how they can affect the taste of our beers. We know they are a green plant, but beyond that how much do we actually know about them?
The Latin name for hops is Humulus Lupulus and according to the British Hop Association is sometimes called ‘wolf of the woods’. Hop plants are a perennial, deciduous plant. Lets break that down! Perennial simply means the plant survives over winter, the leaves will die back but come next spring the plant will burst back into life. A deciduous plant is one where there are separate male and female varieties. It is the female plant that produces the hops we oh so love!
One plant can keep on pumping out those magnificent little green hope for between 10-20 years. Giving even more reason for us to grow our own.
What variety of hop should I grow?
This can be daunting, there are hundreds of different hop varieties out there, all offering unique tastes and it can be very tough to know where to start. A great place to start with is climate. If you live between the 35th and 55th parallel (either northern or southern hemispheres) then you are set, pretty much any hop variety will grow. if not, don’t panic, you still have plenty of options. Hops are hardy plants that are very easy to cultivate.
Most hops are mainly suited to moderate, moist regions. For this reason it can be harder to find variety’s that will thrive in warmer climates. Don’t despair though, there are some great hops that do really well in warmer climates. Cascade is a highly rerecorded hop variety for those of you living in hotter climates.
If you live between the 35th and 55th parallel in either the southern or northern hemispheres (shown as the red areas on the above map) then you are in the perfect hop growing zone. Pretty much any variety of hop will grow well here. So you have the choice to go with taste and also what type of beer you are hoping to use your hops in.
Living in colder climates is also not a problem for growing hops. As long as you get long sunny days hops should grow. There are a few different varieties that colder climate growers recommend. Hallertau is a classic German hop that does well in colder climate. Chinook has also been reported to grown very well in cold climates. If you do get very cold winters make sure to heavily mulch your plants to help protect the roots from frost.
Where to plant your hops
If well looked after your hop plants will live a long time, maybe up to 20 years. That’s why its important you pick a good spot to grow them, this way you wont have to dig them up and potentially damage the rhizomes a few years down the line.
What do my hops plants need?
Whilst being quite easy to grown, there are a few essential elements to hoppy success.
Hop plants need to be exposed to sunlight for eight hours a day so picking a sunny spot is essential. If you are not sure where this perfect sunny spot is in your garden then just pay attention to where the light is. Do this a few times a day at different times and you will soon get a feel for the sunny spots.
If you live in a hot climate then a full sun spot may in-fact be overkill. A spot that offers a bit of shade during the mid day heat would be ideal for you and your hops!
A heavy, clay soil could be a problem if you are wanting to grow hops. whilst not being a fussy plant overall hops really do like a loamy, well drained soil. If you have a poor draining soil then do not despair, soil quality can always be improved. Adding plenty of organic matter and in extreme situations sand will help. If you have a really problematic soil then consider raised beds.
Any avid gardener will tell you, pH level can make or break your garden plans. Hops like a slightly acidic soil, between 6 – 7 pH. Testing kits will help you determine the pH level of your soil. They are really simple to use, normally just requiring you to stick the device into the soil to get a reading. Once you know the pH level of your soil then changing it is easy. If your soil is too acidic then add alkaline material such as wood ash. On the other hand if you have an alkaline soil then adding something like sulphur will help.
Hops love to grow vertically. They can grow to 20-25 feet and sometimes even higher. Some sort of support is essential to make sure you don’t end up with a garden full of floppy hops. Building a trellis for your hops is a surefire way to ensure they get the support they need. Large poles with twine running between provides the ideal support and is a common technique in commercial growing.
Planting your hops
Hops commonly come as rhizomes (a small piece of root that is then planted). They should be planted a few inches below the surface and around 2-3 feet apart. What month to plant in will depend on your climate but spring is the best time, try and plant after the risk of severe frost has passed. For more info on planting hops the hop growing handbook is a great resource.
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