Homebrew Husband Plants Something!

A few weeks ago, our garden witnessed an unusual event:
I planted something.
Usually I confine myself to hard labor, philosophical musing, or self mockery and only get down and dirty with the plant life when following specific orders (“no, more to the right…now turn it a little…”). But fresh back from the Seattle Tilth garden sale, I had something special to get into the ground.  Four little hop plants, ready to go.
As a brewer, hops are dear to my heart, the aromatic soul of a beer, pungent and spicy and herbal. I’ve wanted to have some growing in our yard for a while and had high hopes to start a few bines this year. My plans were thwarted because, by the time I actually got around to thinking about planting, my main two sources of hops, Freshops down in Oregon and my local homebrew store were all out of rhizomes for the year.
Hops are usually planted as dormant rhizome cuttings and alas spring had sprung a little too far.
But then there we were at the Tilth sale.  I was bouncing the baby and Erica came running up to me, “I heard some guy saying they have hops!” And sure enough, there was a good selection of little plastic pots, each with a tiny little hop plant starting to climb.  Delight!  I picked up three (as it turns out, one pot held two plants so I got four plants for the price of three).
Before I continue, a few words about hops.
They are a close relative of chamomile and cannabis – the latter giving rise to the much debated question of whether beer has any psychoactive effects beyond those of alcohol. For the brewer’s purposes, however, hops main contributions are the alpha acids that give beer its characteristic and refreshing bitterness and a mélange of other chemical compounds that add flavor and aroma.

Agronomically hops are a bine, a sort of vine variation that climbs by spiraling around some sort of support. They are invasive, shooting 20 feet into the air (if given proper support) while the rhizomous roots propagate along underground, ready to send more climbing tendrils out the following year.

The number one requirement for planting hops is that they have something to climb. So before getting my new purchases in the ground, I appropriated a leftover raised bed. Into the bed went a discarded piece of chain link fence top rail as a center post and some wire to make four combination guy wires and climbing wires. Leftover bolts from the great perennial bed project acted as tent stakes to anchor the whole thing. Hardware cost so far: zero.
Hops come in about a zillion varieties, but I had three that I wanted to grow.  Ideally, I’d have picked up Cascade, Chinook, and Crystal but as it turned out, I had to substitute Hallertau for the Crystal – this should work out fine since Crystal was hybridized primarily from Hallertau and has a broadly similar flavor profile.
First in was the Cascade, sort of an obligatory Northwestern signature hop. Big with pungent grapefruit aromas, I find it great for adding flavor and aroma to a beer, but harsh and aggressive when overused as a bittering hop. That said, you can’t live north of the Oregon/California border and not grow some, and I certainly do use plenty of it. Deschutes’ Mirror Pond is a good example of a one-hop beer using Cascade, though I think the reliance of Cascade alone asks the hop to play outside of its strengths a bit too much.
Before planting, each rhizome got a little hole and a splash of Erica’s homemade complete organic fertilizer to ease their transition.
I broke the root mass up a little before settling them into their new homes. You can see that the rhizome itself is a pretty ugly looking stick.
One by one, they got settled in.  Here is the Hallertau, standing in for my much loved Crystal.

Both have a mild continental spiciness. The differences are likely to be subtle, and I expect that I can substitute one for the other and produce a reasonably similar beer. Hallertau is a quintessential delicate German flavor, but American brewers have pushed Crystal into some unexpected realms, none more adventuresome than Rogue’s excellent (though no longer in production) all-Crystal Brutal Bitter and I’ve used it in everything from wheat based blonde ales to porters.  Go figure.

As an older variety, Hallertau lacks the disease and pest resistance that newer hybridization efforts have sought – so I have some concerns about how it’ll fair in our organic garden.
One of my favorite hops these days is Chinook – a big, smoky, herbal beast that is a great counterpart to the citrus notes that dominate a lot of Northwest flavors.  It is great in big beers (porters, IPAs) and is wonderfully showcased in Stone Brewing’s enigmatic Arrogant Bastard. To top things off, Chinook is one of the more disease and pest resistant hops, so I was delighted to find some at the show.
Look at this – two plants for the price of one! Picking through the offerings, I found a pot that turned out to have two separate rhizomes growing in it.  One is a bit of a runt, but it would fill my fourth hole, supplying aesthetic symmetry and the prospect of more hops.

A few weeks later and everyone seems to be doing fine.  The stronger bines are tall enough to be climbing their support stakes. In a week or so they will jump over to the wire and keep on climbing.
Harvest time will come in the fall. I still have some questions about how I’m going to handle that – commercial growers let the hops spiral up disposable twine that is cut down at the top. I expect that I’m going to just remove my entire “hop tower” and lay the thing on the ground for harvesting and drying. This was an expedient adventure built with spare parts on hand – I’m sure there will be many lessons learned for next year. Perhaps something with block and tackle…tune in again around harvest time to see how it goes!


  1. says

    *giggles*… hops do seem so cute and unassuming at that size. My husband bought 1 hop to grow up the recently dead aspen tree until he had the time to remove the tree. The hop plant thrived.. 1st year filled out the tree entirely.. and 10 feet along the fence either side. The second year.. It filled out the tree and still stretched several feet above it looking for more to climb to.. and along the fence.. through the fence.. and all through out the neighbor's hydrangea. It got so big and heavy that it took down the tree.

    We had thinned out quite a few bines. Shared many with unsuspecting others. Our hops were nailed by golfball sized hail.. no stopping it! We would pick them, toss the hops into gallon sized ziplocks.. and then race them over to brewing buddies while they were all super fresh.

    We named our hops Audrey.. just like in the Little Shop of Horrors. lol

  2. says

    Friends of mine have a great hops set up. It looks rather like two telephone poles set about 6 feet apart with a bar across the top. Attached to the bar are two block and tackle deals with the ropes anchored to the ground, looking rather like a funny swing set. The vines trail alllll the way up the ropes and at harvest time he simply lowers them down, harvests, cleans it off and hoists it back up. It’s very tall and most definitely the focus of the back yard so keep that in mind!

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