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[Photograph: Sarah Postma]

Growing hops at home is a great way to get a better understanding of your homebrewing ingredients, and it's always fun to get more hands-on when you're making your own beer. Hops have beautiful wide, flat leaves and grow easily up a lattice or a string from the ground connected high on a fence or a wall. For people who want to use their home-grown hops in their homebrew, the string method is preferred since it makes harvesting easier. For people looking for a decorative, aromatic vine, a lattice works well.

Hop bines (yes, that's bines, not vines) will grow rapidly after they start to poke out of the ground. They are a hearty perennial that will continue to produce more hop cones each year they mature. A first year plant may produce no more than a few ounces of hops, but by the third year some varieties will yield 1 to 2 pounds per plant. That's as much as many homebrewers use in a single season.

A rhizome is a piece of a hop plant that will sprout roots when planted, and it's what you will need to purchase if you want to add hops to your garden. Rhizomes are available from most online and local home brew shops in the spring. When you buy a rhizome, it should be stored in the refrigerator wrapped in a damp paper towel until planting.

Get Planting

To plant a rhizome, dig a hole about four inches deep and place the root horizontally. If there are already buds on the root, make sure they are pointed up. Cover with lightly packed dirt, preferably a high nitrogen mulch.

If you're planting more than one rhizome at a time, make sure each root is at least two feet apart so they have room to grow, and leave even more room if you have multiple varieties of hops.

When the hops grow 6 to 12 inches, train them around your string or lattice. In the northern hemisphere, hops will naturally want to grow clockwise around the lattice to follow the sun throughout the day. Any readers in the southern hemisphere will have to train the bines counterclockwise.

As the hops grow, trim each rhizome to four to six bines each. Having two strings for each plant and training three bines per string is a good way to go. After about two months of growth, trim off the bottom four feet of leaves to prevent disease and fungus from being picked up from the soil.

Harvesting Hops for Beer

If you want to use your hops for future homebrews, you should harvest them in the fall when the hop cones start to feel dry and papery. It's fine if the hop cones start to lighten in color, but you should pick them before they start turning brown. The cones should feel light and they should stay compressed when you squeeze them.

Since the majority of the hop cones will grow high and out of reach, cut the bines at the base along with the strings. Lay out the bines flat on the ground and pull off the cones.

Once you harvest the cones, they need to be dried properly before storing or using them. There are many expensive tools out there that will help you dry your hops, but a low-tech approach also works quite well. Place the hop cones on a flat surface so they are layered a single cone deep. Turn on a fan to a low setting, and allow it to blow across the hops. After a few hours, flip them over and dry the other side. Continue to do this until there is no noticeable moisture in the hop cones. Typical drying time is about a day, but sometimes it will take a little longer.

Storage of homegrown hops is the same as any other hop. If you have a food sealer, you can put the hops in airtight bags. If you don't, put them in ziploc bags while pushing as much air out as possible. Once sealed, store the bags in the freezer until you need them. The amount of time hops can be stored in the freezer varies by variety, but they can be kept for at least a year until the next hop harvesting season.

So go out pick up your favorite hop rhizome to get started this year. Homebrew stores often sell out quickly, but you can usually find Centennial, Northern Brewer, Willamette and many more from specialty hop stores such as Freshhops.

I just planted a new Galena rhizome off my back porch a week ago. Are any of you growing hops this year?

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