There is no practical reason for me to grow my own hops. I do not aspire to self-sufficiency. Interdependency builds strong communities, whether it takes the form of shopping at your local retailers, bartering goods and services, or simply borrowing your neighbor’s power tools.
Our friendly neighborhood homebrewing supply shop has quality hops at reasonable prices, in more varieties than I can produce. Store-bought hops come clearly marked with the alpha acid levels, which determine (among other things) how bitter your beer will be. Unless someone wants to lend me an alpha-acid-measureometer-thing, anyone who brews with my homegrown hops will be taking a gamble.*
Even when there are hops shortages, I don’t brew enough to be impacted by rationing. And at my small scale, growing my own doesn’t save me any money. (Although if you brew often, growing your own might be worth the investment: a mature plant, well-tended, can yield up to 2 or 3 pounds of hops cones.)
So why grow my own hops?
Because they’re awesome.
*Here’s my idea, though: we’ll make hop tea with a sample, then compare it to hop tea made from store-bought hops with low, medium, and high acid levels. It will be like a coffee cupping session, but without the hipsters. Volunteers?
Hops grow absurdly fast — up to a foot a day in ideal conditions, though not in my yard. The bines (yes, bines with a “b”) are covered with velcro-like hairs and twist as they grow, easily twining their way up trellises, twine, or nearby children who stand still a little too long.
Also, when hops start to flower they look like something carnivorous. Sundews or terrestrial sea anemones. Or the tendrils of sentient alien pod vines. (Which will eat your children if they stand still for too long.)
And then the cones appear, and things get really exciting. The cones below come from my Columbus hops plant, growing in a pot on the front porch. The ones on the backyard trellis should start producing in the next month.
Those shiny yellow dots are lupulin: oils and resins secreted by glands in the hop cone. Lupulin gives beer its “hoppy” flavor, aroma, and bitterness. It also contains the antimicrobial elements that make hops such a good preservative.
Lupulin also contains soporific and estrogenic compounds, and it’s been used to treat insomnia and symptoms of menopause. The estrogenic compounds are also responsible for “brewer’s droop” — erectile dysfunction resulting from long-term exposure to lupulin. And before you put away that IPA, we’re talking about the levels of lupulin you got when you brewed beer for a living back in the olden days, when brewers spent all day handling open bushels of dried hops, slept above the brewery, and drank beer instead of water.
In the back yard, the Nugget and Chinook hops have reached the fence and are happily growing along the trellis. If you look closely, you’ll see short lateral arms branching off the main bines. These will produce the hop cones, so keep a close eye.
Finally, I have a favor to ask. Please don’t pick the hops. If you pick the laterals, you eliminate a half-dozen cones. And if you pick the growing tip, it stops growing right there: no more growth, no more laterals, no more hop cones, no more beer. I know hops are cool, but you know what’s really cool? Being able to make beer with homegrown hops.
If you’d like a hop leaf or a shoot, just ask me — I prune the lower shoots back regularly, and I’m more than happy to save one for you. I’ll even stick it in a jar of water, if you want to root it. If I’m not outside, send an email to hops(at)plantandplate.com and let me know when you can come by to pick it up.