Last year I started growing my own hops right here in Annapolis to use in my homebrew. One of the best things about brewing your own beer is controlling exactly what goes into it, but usually you still have to buy those ingredients from some supplier. I chose to start growing hops because they’re fairly easy to grow, they look great around the house, and because growing and malting my own barley would be way too much work. Some hop varieties grow really well here and this is the time of year to start ordering them if you want them in the ground for spring.
When you buy a hop plant you usually get a rhizome, which just looks like a dirty, gnarled, stick. In fact, they look so much like sticks that my dogs dug up and ate several of the first ones I planted. The dogs probably think I am the greatest stick farmer that has ever lived.
A rhizome is actually a root stalk that will grow roots downward and sprout bines going upward. Rhizomes can be cut up into pieces and each piece will become a new plant that is genetically identical to the plant it was cut from. For example, Cascade is the most widely used hop in the world today, and every cascade hop plant in existence was cut from a rhizome, that was cut from a rhizome, that was cut from the first Cascade rhizome from a hop plant that was developed in a breeding program at Oregon State University in 1956. The rhizomes I picked up were Cascade and Centennial; two American hop varieties that are very well known for their grapefruit citrus flavor.
Caring for the plants was pretty easy. I picked parts of the yard that got at least six hours of sunlight, mixed up some good topsoil and manure for the beds, and watered every three days or so.
Hops grow upward, so I attached strings to a pole to give the plants something to climb once they were a few feet tall. The bine of the plant looks for something to grab on to and then climbs its way to better sunlight. Yes that is ‘bine’ and not ‘vine.’ The difference is that vines use tentacle like roots or thorns to grab onto things and climb their way up, while a bine twists in a clockwise motion to wrap itself around things, using tiny stiff hairs to grip as it winds its way up.
Charles Darwin actually wrote about the way hop bines move and climb after being stuck in a hospital bed for several days with nothing better to do than watch a hop plant grow. Hop plants can grow nearly a foot a day and watching them move isn’t as boring as it sounds. You can watch a time-lapse video of a hop plant here (skip to around 38 seconds to watch the plant spin around in the air). This year I’m going to use my GoPro to get a time lapse video of my hops growing, because that is the most extreme thing I can think of to do with my GoPro now that I’m in my thirties.
I also planted several Centennial rhizomes along the fence around the house. I didn’t expect these to produce many hops but I actually harvested more cones from these plants than the ones on the strings. The challenge with the plants on the fence is that the bines wanted to grow upward and would start twisting around on themselves once they got to the top of the fence. I had to go out and wrap the bines along the top of the fence myself every three or four days, but it paid off. The plants looked beautiful and I harvested plenty of great hop cones.
Normally, you get few to no cones from first year plants, but every plant that survived the summer produced at least a few. I was actually able to get multiple harvests from the plants growing along the fence. It seems that the Annapolis soil along with our latitude is prime for growing Cascade and Centennial hops. I’m sure other varieties will also do well here.
I had a great time growing these hops and I encourage most homebrewers to give it a try. My hops even made it into the Capital Gazette newspaper. I worked these hops into an IPA, but there were so many other hops that I really don’t know the exact flavor and aroma that these contributed. For year two I hope to at least double the amount of cones I harvest. If that happens then I’ll be brewing up a couple of single hop pale ales this fall.
Want to read how the hops are doing in year two? Check them out here.