• Confessions of a Rookie Hop Grower

    I like mucking about in the garden almost as much as I like making beer.  So last season I decided it was time to have a crack at growing my own hops.  I briefly also considered growing and malting my own barley, but thought that would probably be a stretch for a suburban Sydney backyard. 

    Location Location Location 

    Finding the right spot is important if you're going to grow your own hops.  It needs to be sunny, but not such a suntrap that your hops get fried in mid summer.  I picked a spare compost bay in the south-west corner of my backyard, probably too hot in the afternoon sun but at least with no concrete or metal around to radiate heat.  If you have somewhere you've successfully grown tomatoes before, it'll probably be ok for hops too.

    Hops of course grow bloody tall, up to around 5-6 metres.  So they need something bloody tall to grow up.  But when you're operating out of a suburban backyard, just make sure your hop tower is not so big and so ugly that your wife or neighbours get the shits.  And if you live in an apartment, forget about it.  Unless of course you happen to have a sunny aspect and are on friendly terms with beer loving upstairs neighbours for 2 floors above. 

    The Hop Tower

    Ideally your hop tower will be 5-6 metres tall.  I say ideally, because I found my hops grew just as happily along the fence as up the tower, so I reckon something shorter and wider would do the job ok.
    Anyway, erecting a 5-6 metre hop tower presented quite an engineering challenge for this office boy.  I considered various options from telescopic TV antenna poles (too expensive) to unused sections of pool fence (too short).  I ended up opting for polypipe irrigation risers as they are cheap, screw together in easy to transport sections, and are quite strong.  Or so I thought.  When I joined a few sections of polypipe riser together there was a lot more flex than expected.  
    So, channelling MacGyver, I stuck an old metal curtain rod up the guts to stiffen it up.  Not quite long enough (who has windows that big), but when I screwed it to the fence and ran a couple of guy lines down either side it stood proudly erect.  Sadly, there was clearly not enough lead in the pencil and a bad case of brewer's droop soon followed. 

    hmm...must do better next season

    Hop Healthcare 

    I'd read somewhere that hops can be quite susceptible to a range of common garden pests and diseases.  I was pleasantly surprised to find my Cascade hops were quite healthy and hassle free to care for.

    Hops are a thirsty plant so it's important to keep up the water.  I hooked up a mister to come on twice a day for 15 minutes, plus occasionally put a hose on during especially hot or dry spells.

    The only sign of trouble I had was some browning around the edges of some leaves near the bottom of the vine, when the plant was already well established and a couple of metres tall.  It looked a bit like rust, so I bunged on some tomato dust which seemed to do the job.

    Harvesting and Drying

    I planted in early September.  Six months later in early March my hops were looking mighty fine.  Some of them were starting to go a little brown and most felt "papery", just like mrs google said they should when ready.  They smelled great and were sticky with resin.  Result!

    Harvesting resulted in a good bucketful that weighed almost 1kg and looked suspiciously like a different kind of cash crop that could get you locked up.  Next challenge was how to dry it out.  Mrs google now advised that I needed to remove about 90% of the water content, so I figured that my 1kg should come down to a bit over 100g (allowing for weight of stalks and leaf matter).

    I considered various MacGyver solutions for drying apparatus, but it was still bloody hot in Sydney so I just spread the hops out in a cardboard box and left them in the sun for a couple of afternoons.  I weighed them and they came in at 180g, a little more than I was aiming for but they were starting to feel crispy so I figured they'd had enough.  Two Glad bags, in the fridge, job done! 

    Brewing with Whole Fresh Hops

    It was a couple of months later after some time overseas that I had the chance to brew again.  I had no idea what the alpha acid content was, but it was no problem as I just used my usual Pride of Ringwood bittering hops and saved the home grown Cascades for flavour, aroma and dry hop additions. 

    I used a basic APA recipe and, wanting plenty of fresh hop character, used 30g in each of the three additions of Cascades.  The dry hops were added a few days into fermentation after transferring to a secondary fermenter.  

    The Verdict

    I didn't have high hopes after a taste of the unconditioned beer when fermentation was complete.  The fresh hops just didn't seem to come through and there was an unexpectedly astringent taste.  But after 6 months of lovingly tending to my prized hops I was sure as hell going to bottle it anyway.  

    Bottled & kegged

    And I'm pleased I did so, because after a few weeks conditioning and carbonation, First Harvest APA has mellowed nicely into a very drinkable example of the style.  The Cascade hops come through more subtly than anticipated, which I suspect may be due to my low-tech drying technique causing essential oils to evaporate.  Next batch I'll compensate by upping the dosage.

    First Harvest APA

    So, is it worth the effort?  If like me you enjoy growing stuff anyway, then yes, absolutely.  But if your interest is mostly just in the beer itself, then I'd say there's plenty more variables in the brewing process that offer a bigger bang for your effort.

    If you do have a crack, good luck - and may your hop tower stand proud!

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