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How to hop on hops

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Much is said about self-sufficiency when it comes to growing your own food, whether that’s fruits and vegetables or livestock for meat. But there’s another important part of our diet that can’t be overlooked: beverages (and specifically, alcoholic ones). If you imbibe, you know there’s nothing sweeter than kicking back after a hard day of work with your drink of choice.

The good news is you can grow your beer. Diane Diffenderfer, a Master Gardener Coordinator with Penn State Extension, recently led an online session about “Backyard Hop Production: A Primer for Home Gardeners.” It focused on growing hops in your garden for brewing (and more).

Diffenderfer herself just started growing hops a couple of years ago and said “it really has been quite fun.” She added that they are relatively easy to grow compared to a tomato or a pepper.

So, why hops? She asks potential growers that question regularly. Answers have included that they’re something different, that they have varied uses (culinary and floriculture in addition to brewing), that they’re adaptable (and can be grown in a field, a garden or a container) and that they’re relatively easy to grow. In Pennsylvania alone, there are 17 hop yards with a total acreage of just 21 acres – “and that’s significant because not a lot of people are doing this yet,” she said.

However, growing hops is far from a new idea. Humans have been fermenting things to make intoxicating beverages for millennia, but the first documented use of hops in beer was in ninth century Europe. It was discovered that beer brewed with hops was less prone to spoilage than beer brewed with herbs. The plants’ flowers (cones) give beer its bitter flavor and their aromatics act as preservatives. Hops were introduced to North America in 1629.

The plant itself is an herbaceous perennial (like asparagus or horseradish). “You can eat a hop,” Diffenderfer said. “I don’t think they taste very good at all. They’re much better in a beer, but they are edible.” The plant dies to the ground in winter and the rhizome has buds. It is dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants. They are grown through vegetative propagation (you can buy rhizomes or grow through stem cuttings that include a leaf and a node). They’re heliotropic, which mean they follow the course of the sun (like sunflowers). The bines only grow upward in a clockwise motion. Because of their height aspirations, they need something rough, not smooth, to climb, like a wooden trellis or hemp ropes or twine. If nothing else, Diffenderfer said hops can make a really nice living screen for privacy.

Most hops grown in the U.S. today are varietals of Humulus lupulus. Each cultivar has its own characteristics, and your end use will help determine which ones you should grow. In general, hops are either bittering, aromatic or ornamental. For example, the popular Cascade is an aromatic that’s easy to grow. Newport is a bittering hop with good disease resistance. And Blue Northern Brewer is an ornamental, with dark blue-green foliage.

Before you plant, though, there are a few things you need to know. First, know your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone so you can find the appropriate varieties. “No matter what we grow, the most important thing is the soil,” Diffenderfer said. Hops like a loamy soil; if you have a lot of clay, you’ll want to modify the soil to increase its organic matter.

Hops also grow a lot of foliage so it’s not a bad idea to trim it back on occasion to improve air flow. To prune, make sure to use a sharp pair of shears. First, look for and remove leaves that are damaged in some way. Look for where you think there should be gaps – the same as when you’re pruning for apples and peaches, according to Diffenderfer. To train new shoots, plant them near the bottom of your fence, trellis or twine. You can gently manipulate the bines if needed.

Like any other plant, hops are susceptible to certain pests. Weeds, obviously, are always in competition. Aphids can feed on the bottoms of leaves and can transmit hop mosaic virus, which can results in yield losses between 15% and 62%. Other issues to worry about include downy mildew (which is caused by fungi and looks like early frost damage) and powdery mildew (also caused by fungi; it causes yellow spots on leaves and turns powdery white as it grows). Diffenderfer said, “Think about integrated pest management first. Figure out what is bothering the plant, then look at different ways of controlling it. For example, with aphids, use a trap crop (like stinging nettles).”

You’ll likely harvest your hops in September, and to do so, just rip down the bines – you don’t need to take the time to cut off individual flowers.

But, before all of this, Diffenderfer said there are some questions you need to answer before you start your hops adventure. First, what is your goal in growing hops? Then, consider all the issues raised above (growing zone, planting area, trellising, starting with plants or rhizomes, etc.). And, finally, remember that hops are perennials and will take up a fair amount of space during the growing season.

As for the brewing part of it – well, let’s get those plants thriving first!

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