Every homebrewer has used dry hops, those little pellets of aroma and flavor that have such a huge impact on your final product. You may even have a favorite hop variety, one that offers just the right flavor profile to tickle your particular taste buds. Most of us, however, have never used hops in their ‘raw,’ fresh form, also known as “wet hops.” That’s because hops must be used or dried fairly quickly after being harvested.
For the dedicated homebrewer, using wet hops is totally worth the extra effort. They provide a fresher, cleaner flavor and aroma that can’t be duplicated with dry hops. Finding a supply can be a pain, so growing them yourself is usually the best way to go. You can grow them just about anywhere in the continental US, and dry whatever you don’t use right away for other brewing projects later in the year.
Growing And Harvesting Your Own Hops
Growing hops in your backyard or garden is not that different from growing anything else. You’ll need a spot where they can get a lot of sunlight, between 6 and 8 hours a day. A south facing garage wall or something similar is a great place. They’ll need supports to grow on, which can be put together easily using a few eye hooks and twine.
Run some twine down from the hooks screwed high into the wall. Stake the dangling ends of the twine into the ground and you’ll be ready to go. If you don’t have a handy wall, a simple wooden or metal trellis also works well.
You’ll need to buy hop rhizomes, which are cuttings that are about 1 foot long. Most dry hops varieties are also available as rhizomes, so you can grow your favorite types. With some care you can grow whatever you want, though some varieties are going to do better in certain parts of the country. The USDA has a good resource for figuring out what will grow best in your area.
Hops will need well aerated soil with good irrigation; sandy soil that has been turned prior to planting works well. It’s best to plant your hops in early spring, just late enough to make sure they won’t be damaged by frost.
Hops actually are delicate little flowers. Plant the rhizomes about 40 inches apart. Their roots will spread fairly far, so they’ll need room. As they get older, you’ll want to trim their root systems back, or they can take over a whole garden quickly.
In fairly short order a few shoots will pop up. These can be trained to grow on your twine netting or trellis. Simply coax them to grow around the support, twisting them around it with your fingers. Do this on a warm, sunny day when the sprouts are less likely to break. If they do end up breaking, it’s not a huge deal. Have a homebrew and enjoy the sun for a while. The sprouts will grow back.
Hops are thirsty plants, a bit like homebrewers, so you’ll need to water them frequently. In drier climates or in summers without a lot of rain, they should be watered daily. Rather than sprinkling the whole plant, focus on watering the soil around the base of the plant. Wet leaves provide exactly the sort of environment mold and disease love.
You’ll know it’s getting near harvest time when the hops begin giving off that characteristic aroma that we all know and love. Hops ready to harvest will feel dry and springy, with brown tips and a papery texture. They will also leave a yellow powder on your fingers. This is lupulin powder, the active ingredient in hops that adds flavor and does all the magical stuff that hops do. If the lupulin turns orange and begins to smell not so great, the hops are overripe and should probably not be used for brewing.
Once you do harvest the hop flowers, leave them somewhere dark and dry; definitely keep them out of the sun. They may have a few crawly critters on there, which can be encouraged to leave with a few sharp shakes of the hops. Any hops that you don’t use can be left out to dry and then stored in a paper bag, then put in your freezer to use later.
Brewing With Wet Hops
Now we get to the fun part. How do you use these little hop flowers to make an outstanding, unique beer?
First, they should be used almost immediately, 24-48 hours after harvesting. You’ll have to decide which of the few different ways to use wet hops you’re going to go with, depending on how big of a gamble you want to take.
Unlike dried hops you get from a brewing supply store, there’s not going to be a single, known flavor profile for these hops. It’s going to vary from harvest to harvest, so you’re not going to have the same degree of precise control over your beer’s flavor as you will with dried hops.
You’ll also need to use a great deal more hops than you would with the more concentrated, dried variety. A good rule of thumb is to use about 6 times the wet hops as you would dry hops. You may not want to use wet hops to make super-hoppy beers, just because it will take a huge amount of the wet hops to get the same effect. The fresh, flowering flavor that is the draw of the wet hops may also become overpowering and unpleasant with highly hopped beers.
An alternative, which I would recommend particularly for the first go around, is to use a mix of dried and wet hops. A ratio of about ¾ dried hops to ¼ wet hops is a good rule of thumb, as that’s going to give you more control while still letting you take advantage of the wet hops you’ve worked so hard to grow. Wet hops can be used at any point in the brew; just pitch the whole flower into the kettle and then strain them out when you’re done.
The most conservative option is to use wet hops as an additive during secondary fermentation. That technique is called, somewhat confusingly, dry hopping. Because you’re not boiling the hops to make the wort, the acids and oils aren’t being released in the same way; you can use regular dried hops for that part. Using wet hops this way means that they won’t add to the bitterness of the beer. Instead, it will just add the distinctive wet-hopped flavor and aroma to the final product.
Growing your own hops allows you to try some fairly cool experiments in homebrewing, creating beers that will be not quite like anything you’ve had before. And, even better, you’ll most likely end up with a supply that you can dry for later. My own experiments have produced some interesting variations with just a basic recipe. Each brew also tends to be unique, so it’s a new experience every time.
If you have the time and the interest, growing your own hops is a great way to take your home brewing to a new level.