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Hops: Screening, Fragrance, and a Valued Crop!

I am interested in growing hops. I plan to run them up the posts of my deck. I have found a few vendors that sell them online. Do you have any tips? When to plant? Fertilizer? How many rhizomes to plant, etc.? Thank you for your help.
    ---Cory in Jefferson City, MO
I need some tips on getting my hops ready for a successful growing season. The plants are only a year old and didn't produce anything last season, but I hear that this is common while the root system is getting established. Any tips on getting a good crop this year?
    ---Trevor in southwest Ohio
I've have heard you talk about the wonderful aroma of hops. Do you start from seed or plants? Do you get them from nurseries or catalogs? Love your show! Thanks.
    ---Owen in Phoenix City, AL
Great timing youse guys; hops are a hot crop right now! The price brewers pay for this essential ingredient has skyrocketed from around $5 a pound to $25 virtually overnight, explains Dan Weirback ("Wire-Bock") of Weyerbacher Brewery in Easton, PA, who personally responded by planting 1500 hop vines on his own farm this Spring.

Of course, hop growing has always been attractive to home brewers who value the delicious bitterness the hop flower adds to the mix. And please include me in that crowd! Weyerbacher's "Hop Infusion" and "Hop Devil" from the Philadelphia brewer Victory are my absolute favorite brews! (Dan says that makes me what they call a 'hop-head' in the trade.)

There's a lot of good growing advice online from brewing supply companies and state extension offices (here's a sample from Vermont), some of which is repeated here, as I've never grown hops personally. But friends of mine once had them growing up from their backyard to the top of their deck, which happened to be the best possible height of 20 or so feet off the ground. They grew them strictly as an ornamental to screen the underside of the deck from view when you were in their nice backyard, and the look and late summer aroma were very pleasant.

You can grow hops almost anywhere in North America. New England and Ohio were once hop central, but mildew and other diseases sent commercial production to the drier air out West and most hop farms are now in Oregon, California and Washington State. Dry air and a moderately cool clime will produce the best vines with the fewest problems, but even our hop-hopeful listeners in steamy Missouri and Alabama should have a good chance of success if they compensate for their savagely humid summers by spacing their plants further apart, use lots of compost to ward off disease and prune off the bottom leaves to improve airflow.

Everyone outside of the West Coast should have a natural anti-fungal at the ready in case disease does strike. Our sultry Southerners might even want to use a natural fungicide preventively, especially if their weather has been relentlessly rainy.

Although the mature plants are huge, hops are herbaceous perennials. Just like hostas, the top growth dies back every winter, but the roots (or in this case, 'rhizomes') survive to sprout a new in the Spring. You buy the rhizomes from mail-order suppliers and plant them in the Spring. You only want female plants, as the un-pollinated flowers are what's used in brewing and herbal medicine (where hops are valued as a sleep aid).

Be sure to get the type you want. Some varieties are purely ornamental, while others are the preferred type for beer making. The article on growing hops organically at the always helpful Sustainable Agriculture site "ATTRA" notes that there are two kinds used in brewing: "Aromatic hops", which are 3 to 5% bitter, and "bittering hops", whose bitterness quotient is 10% and up. For beer making, they suggest growing both in a two to one ratio, favoring the aromatic variety.

Hops like a rich, VERY well-drained soil, so till deeply—Dan says he went the recommended two feet down—and mix in a lot of compost. Plant each rhizome a couple of feet apart and mulch well in between the plants to prevent weeds and keep moisture in the soil. The vines can be very thirsty, so water frequently, but always let the plants dry out in between, as wet feet will rot the rhizomes. Water only at the base of the plants to prevent disease, and in humid climes, carefully prune off all the leaves from the first couple of feet off the ground to improve airflow. Just the leaves; don't damage the vines!

Again, even though they only grow for four months, the vines get huge and need a lot of support, which can either be straight up, or up and then out laterally on something like a grape arbor. (My California friend, food writer Jeff Cox, favors this style; he says the cones hang down from the arbor, making picking a breeze.) Either way, they need heavy, rough baling twine to well…twine around! Hop vines don't have tendrils like ivy that would allow them to cling to surfaces, and need to grab onto heavy twine to go airborne. Dan adds that the twine needs to be anchored in the ground well for the system to work.

Now up until I talked to Dan the Brewery Man, I was telling people that you'll get screening and shade the first year, but no flower production. Dan was told the same thing by the farm specialists from Rutgers who helped him plan out his field.

But when we spoke at the beginning of August, he said his vines had lots of flowers and he was expecting to get 50% of a full harvest this first year; probably, he says, because he drip irrigated like mad. (Watch for the result in a special production of Harvest Ale from Weyerbacher this September.) Everyone gets flowers the second year on, but they appear at the very top of the vines, which makes a tall deck or arbor ideal for ease of picking.

That massive growth dies back at the end of the season—even in very un-frosty areas like California. Now, because they were using them to hide the underside of a deck, my PA friends let the dead vines stand and cut them back in the Spring. If your vines were nice and healthy, you can do the same. But if they had pest or disease issues, cut them down and burn or trash them. Then mulch the rhizomes well in climes with winter freezes.

Obviously, this is just the tip of the hoppy iceberg; read the excellent online articles we've linked up to and delve into this highly detailed account for lots more detail about growing, drying and using hops.

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