Yes, you can grow hops!
Many things are pointing to the long awaited end of Winter and the onset of Spring, not the least of which is the sprouting and flowering of all the things that make San Diego look like... well, San Diego. We know people in other areas of the country laugh at the idea of our having had a hard Winter, but it was pretty ugly and cold. Anyway, now is the time to start thinking about the beers we will want to drink in the Summer, and the crops we'll be harvesting toward the Fall. (What???) Yes Bunky, I said crops. NO, we're not suggesting you plant the front yard in Barley (well, at least not unless you have a really understanding spouse and a very large front yard anyway). We're talking cash crops, greenery, vines 'o plenty, aromatic ambrosia,... Hops !!
Each year at about this time we order Hop Rhizomes, or cuttings from the underground branch stock via which hops spread and generate new hop vines. (O.K. now, here comes the sales push.) These Rhizomes can be planted by you, the brewer, for hop growing fun and personal profit... for personalization of your favorite beer... for independence from "the man" (hey wait a minute, that's me)... and for shedding the chains of servitude and bondage from the international hop cartel, thus furthering the cause of home brewer freedom and autonomy around the world !!! (Insert patriotic music here.) My Brothers and Sisters in Barley - I ask you to strike a blow for freedom !! (Insert applause here. Thank You, Thank You...you're too kind,...Thank You.........)
Hops are one of the plants that exhibit underground branching and sprouting behavior that in the wild allows them to spread, and aids in multiplying. Additionally hops can also multiply by normal flower pollination and seed formation, with the dropped seeds creating NEW plants. In some plant groups the seed production is our primary goal in cultivating that plant, such as barley or corn. In others it is the flesh surrounding seeds that we use and consume such as grapes and peaches, or the skin covering the seed as is the case with many spices. In hops it is actually the flower that is desired and utilized, with its acids we perceive as beneficial bitterness and its oils that impart flavor and aroma.
As often is the case with plants whose desireable parts are NOT seeds the reason is the seeds exhibit some undesireable character... which may range from a negative flavor all the way to toxicity. Also, the formation of the seeds concentrates a great deal of the plants energy and expenditure of resources toward that goal of seed production. In hops case, seeds provide an astringent type of flavor or tactile sensation to the human palate. For that reason, hops are carefully cultivated to avoid the formation of seeds.
The Private Bits:
That brings us to the reason for Rhizomes !!! (Bet you thought we'd never get to this point, huh?) Well now that we're here let's explore the seamy underbelly of hop culture... their sordid, lascivious, bohemian, "tendrils akimbo frolic" through sunny summer days and balmy moonlit nights... (Insert your own bad porn movie music here. Yeah, right... you don't know what that means... sure O.K.)
Anyway, hop plants are either male or female and would like nothing better than to find themselves growing amidst a group of hop plants of the opposite sex, so that with the help of insects and birds male plants could pollinate female plants. That would not only mean seed formation... but because man has the ability to transport and plant non-native varieties wherever he wishes, possible cross pollination of hop varieties and the resulting hybrid seeds would mean less varietal specificity in future plant generations. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, energy devoted to seed production within the female flower would detract from the size, quantity, and qualities of flowers produced. In other words, the characteristics prized for use in beer would be seriously degraded. For these reasons, hops cultivated for brewing are propagated by planting Rhizome cuttings of known female plants, and kept isolated from proximity of males to avoid seed production. In its "frustrated" state the female produces more and larger flowers, richer in oils and resins that carry the desired characteristics for beer. (Male flowers, celebate or not, have no brewing value. Another nature inflicted anti-male sexist situation!)
It's simple. Rhizomes are harvested in the Pacific Northwest in early Spring, and kept dormant by keeping them cool. We have a connection with the single best source of these Rhizomes in the country, and we order them only when they say good enough Rhizomes are available. When we receive our Rhizome order we clean them as necessary to ensure good solid stock and refrigerate them so you can buy them, bring them home and plant them.
Planting is simple. Place the Rhizome in soil so that the buds or area about to bud is about 1 inch below the surface. Make certain the soil is nice and rich so it will hold moisture, but loose enough to provide good drainage. The sunniest location possible is best, but make sure to water lightly but frequently until roots have formed. By the way, a little fertilizer wouldn't hurt. (That goes for all your plants!) And YES, they can be planted in containers.
The Rhizome will grow, break ground and begin to develop a root system. Trim off all but 2 or 3 of the hardiest shoots. Once the shoots develop leaves you will need to give them something to climb on, as they will soon become vines. That can be a fence line, a trellis, a string tied to a pole, or just about anything that will keep the vine off of the ground.. Over the following 2 to 3 months, the vine will grow and then begin to form flower buds. The flowers will get larger and eventually open wider and begin to dry slightly. That will usually happen in late July to late August depending on variety and seasonal weather. The flowers are cone-like in appearance, and thinking of them like a pine cone will help you know what to look for. Remember, if there were seeds, they would be under the petals until the cone opened to drop them. At that time, pick them, and air dry them before sealing in a zip lock bag and freezing for long term storage. That's it! Use them to make beer and enjoy the satisfaction of having grown your own hops!!!
Until your crop comes in you'll have to buy hops for these recipes, but they are so tasty we doubt you'll mind.
Hop-along Brown Ale
Hoppilicious Pale Ale
Clip-cloppity Hoppity Red