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Growing Hops

 

Introduction

Hops will only grow in specific areas according to climate, particularly latitude. In the southern hemisphere and Australia in particular, the ideal latitude is below the "36th parallel". For example, middle to southern Victoria and Tasmania are ideal. Hops need plenty of sun and plenty of water, but in the right place, at the right time. Lights can help but will work out to be very expensive. Tasmania has more daylight hours than Queensland, not sunshine or heat, but daylight hours. This is very important in growing hops. If you're serious about growing enough quality hops for brewing then Victoria and Tasmania are your best bet.

Soil Preparation

Good drainage, a sunny, northerly aspect and ample water are the basic requirements for growing hops. Choose your spot wisely. Soil pH should be around 6. Check it out and alter to suit. Your local garden supplies or landscape gardener should be able to help. Select an area where hills or mounds can be positioned to align east-west to obtain the maximum exposure to the sun. Hop hills should be approximately one metre apart and around four metres long or can be planted in two metre squares. If you grow, say two bittering hops and two aroma hops, this area will supply enough hops for yourself and maybe some to give away as well.

Mark out the position of your hills and turn over the soil. Rake the soil into a long, raised mound. More soil may need to be added to reach a final height of approx. 15 cm. Rake a flat bed along the top of the hill and place the hop rhizomes with buds or shoots pointing up. Cover with approx. 5cm of soil, then mulch. This will help protect the rhizome and maintain a reasonable cover. Hop rootlets will grow sideways and growing them in hills makes them easier to control.

Varieties

Pride of Ringwood is the hop mostly grown in Australia. Fresh Pride of Ringwoods are a great bittering hop. Many different varieties of hops are grown by individuals but not by commercial growers, they have to do as they are told by the big boys. My hop garden consists of California Cluster and Vienna Gold. There are however, many kinds out there. Keep your eyes and ears open. If you hear of something good let me know. As indicated previously, two aroma and two bittering varieties should give you all the hops you need. Save money by purchasing only one rhizome of each variety you wish to use. The rhizomes will grow quickly and can be easily divided the following winter to spread along your hill. Dig up and cut your rhizome into sections, each must have at least one bud that has sprouted.

How to Care for your Crop

  • Timing, Feeding, Watering

The best time to transplant hop rhizomes is in August. Their main growing time is early to mid-summer and that wonderful time, harvesting is in early March.

Make sure you feed them well, especially in early summer. Blood and bone and other such products are good, but watch the pH and alternate your food from year to year. Hops need plenty of water but not wet feet. A drip system will work best and is inexpensive. It will direct water right to where it is needed without waste. Watch out for two-spotted mite or red spider and the light brown apple moth. If infestation occurs check your local garden supply shop for a suitable spray.

  • Up, Up and Away

Hops can grow up to nine metres tall, which is around 30 feet. I recommend between six and seven metres. This height should be manageable come harvest time. Be careful though, it's a long way down. My method may be a bit "over the top", but use your imagination. I concreted 65 by 65 mm steel posts into the ground and then slotted in six metre lengths of 50 by 50mm square steel. This arrangement is very solid and semi-permanent. If I move I can take my inserts with me.

Rows should go east-west with nothing to shade the area - all day sun is imperative for best results. Join the tops and bottoms of your poles with fencing wire, have some adjustment mechanism and leave is slightly slack. When the weight of the hop vines start to sag the wire use the tensioner to pull it level again. Strings tied between the wires ( I use hay-bale twine ) should be around 50 to 60 cm apart. Do not have them any closer together or your crop will suffer.

  • The Third Coming

When shoots start to emerge you will be excited. Quell your excitement and cut back the first and second growths. The third coming will be strong and healthy. Nurture it, feed and coax it clockwise around the strings. If you don't it will not grow correctly. As the hop vine grows up your strings other shoots will appear. Two more vines can be trained to climb after the first and will give a great crop come harvest time. Around late spring and early summer your vines will grow approximately 15 to 20 cm per day.

Your first year's crop will certainly not be prolific and you will not harvest enough to do more than a brew or two. Do not despair, the best is yet to come. The following years will bear the fruits of your labour and tender loving care.

  • The Excitement Ignites

After the first years growth and the leaves have turned autumn-brown, cut back the growth from under the bottom wire. Your hops will now lay nearly dormant until early next spring. Repeat your trimming, coaxing and training as you did the first year. Your beautiful hop cones will start to form during summer. Hop flowers will form around 150cm from the base of the plant and go right to the tip. Get them up as high as you can. The excitement will grow as your hop flowers form. It's great. Keep checking your soil moisture once the major growth occurs. It's a long way up there to the top and you don't want them to run dry half way up.

  • To Pick or Not to Pick

There are two ways that I tell when my hops are ready for harvest, but remember they are not all ready at the same time.

1) They should have a paper-like texture and dryness. Carefully squeeze a hop cone. If it sticks it is not ready. If it parts easily, go for your life.

2) The very point of the cone leaves start to turn brown. Don't leave them too long after this. Early March seems to be the best time. Thank goodness for Daylight Saving, it's not much fun trying to pick in the dark.

When picking make sure your ladder is stable. A broken leg will finish your brewing for a while. I find a plastic shopping bag fixed to my belt is a great receptacle for putting the hops in while up the ladder. A bag full is very light and easy to handle.

Hops should be dried to about 10 percent of their original moisture content to prevent spoiling. You can use an old upright clothes drier with a fan forced heater in the bottom. Place three or four shelves up the sides to hold your trays. Trays should be around 9cm deep with fly-wire bottoms and of course, made to fit on the shelves. Heat the cabinet to approximately 60 degrees Celcius then turn off the heat. Return periodically and bring back to 60 degrees. Doing it this way will save you a bit of money on the electricity and it will take a bit more than a day to dry to the correct consistency. My present method of drying is to use a timber flywire screen set up. Make a frame with sides around 10 cm deep and attach flywire to make a tray. Raise on tressles to allow air to circulate. They should dry in the sun in a day or two. Place trays undercover overnight to prevent moisture settling on them.

Now put your dried hops into freezer bags. Squeeze out the excess air, tie and secure. Weigh and mark your bags for future identification. The best place to store your hops is in the fridge or freezer. Your hops, if kept cool and in the dark, will last this way for more than a season and will retain their freshness. Foil bags can also help to retain the aroma as plastic will let some escape. Aged hops that have turned brown should be discarded. They will only spoil your brew.

Fresh hop flowers are a joy to use. Try the same recipe using hop flowers instead of pellets. Boy what a difference!

Have a hoppy time growing and an even hoppier time using.

Cheers,

Col