Brew your own beer? Why not grow your own hops, too?
By Denise Ruttan
Photo by Lynn Ketchum
Oregon State University's hops breeder, Shaun Townsend, prepares hops for drying at OSU's hop yard in Corvallis.
With craft beer and home brewing becoming more popular, interest is fermenting among gardeners in backyard hops.
Oregon State University's hops breeder, Shaun Townsend, said he regularly fields questions from the public about growing hops. He also teaches workshops on "hops growing 101" to prospective hops farmers and gardeners.
"Typical questions are: 'How do I fertilize, water and harvest? What sort of diseases and pests do I need to monitor for? What hop varieties should I get?'" Townsend said. "I get a question almost every week. I was on the phone this morning with a fellow in Medford wanting to grow hops."
To get started, Townsend advised planting hops in well-drained soils and full sun exposure for optimum growth. You also need at least a 10-foot trellis or pole system to train these vigorous climbers.
One or two plants are plenty for backyard cultivation, he said. One vigorous plant can yield about 5 to 6 pounds of fresh cones, the part of the plant that's used in beer. Wrap the bines, or elongated stems, in a clockwise direction around the climbing support to train the plant. Use string, paper twine, coir (made from the fiber of coconut husk) or anything that the bines can grip well.
Hops produce different flavors of beer depending on the variety, and there are two types of hop: bitter or aromatic. Townsend recommended the aromatic Cascade variety, developed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's breeding program at OSU in 1955. It can withstand climates anywhere from central Oregon to the Willamette Valley.
"It's pretty much foolproof," Townsend said.
Other good choices for Oregon are Centennial, Newport, Sterling or Nugget. Some varieties do not do as well as others in heat.
You can order whole plants or the rhizome, an underground stem that produces buds, from online sources and local distributors. You can also dig up a rhizome or make a stem cutting from a friend's established plant.
January and February are the months for digging up rhizomes for replanting. Cut about a 3- to 4-inch section of rhizome, making sure that a pinkish-white bud is present. Then grow it in a greenhouse with extra lighting. Rhizomes can also be planted in deep containers outside after January. In May, transplant the rhizome to your garden plot.
When deciding where to place your plant, keep in mind that it grows robustly and prefers full sun. Don't plant it near shade-intolerant plants that hops could crowd out.
Apply nitrogen-rich fertilizer about once every other week from late-April or May into June. After that, the plant doesn't need extra nitrogen. Be careful not to over-fertilize, as lots of nitrogen can propagate a lush, dense plant that could attract pests and diseases, Townsend said.
Water the plant every one to three days. Harvest your hops between the third week of August and early September.
Depending on the variety, hops typically fully mature by the third season. During the first and second season, gardeners can still harvest enough hops even though the plant is not producing at full capacity.
By fall, you'll get to taste the fruits of your labor in your very own homegrown homebrew.