If you are an enthusiastic homebrewer or happen to live near a brewery, you may have toyed with the idea of growing hops — the green, pinecone-shaped flowers of the hop plant that are used to flavor and stabilize beer.
Hops grow on stiff stems known as “bines” suspended on poles or trellises that reach about 18 feet in the air.
“It’s a really cool plant to work with, and it’s fun to watch grow,” J Robert Sirrine, senior educator at the Michigan State University Cooperative Extension, said. “Even better, you can make beer.”
According to the Hop Growers of America, more than 50 varieties of hops are grown in the U.S., and each has a different quality that it imparts on the beer, from bitterness and fruitiness to floral or citrus aromas.
“On a smaller scale, a lot of the people we see getting into it are home brewers that are interested in experimenting with different varieties,” Sirrine said.
According to Steve Miller, executive director at the Northeast Hop Alliance, hops require a dormant period to flourish, so northern regions are generally better for growing.
“They do need a cold treatment in the winter for a dormancy period,” Miller said. “They need at least eight weeks of temperatures below 40 degrees. You really can’t go any further south than North Carolina unless you are growing them in a greenhouse.”
Location also matters when it comes to day length. “Hops are affected by day length, so latitude is important,” Miller said. The long day lengths at northern latitudes make it so that the plant will be as large as possible by the summer solstice to initiate the most bud development. As the days get shorter, it signals both flowering and eventual dormancy.
Because the hop plant is perennial, it can take a few years before it is established and producing a significant amount of hops. Their root system is also susceptible to rot, so soil drainage is essential — sandy soil or sandy loams are ideal.
Common varieties of hops are generally well adapted to many different kinds of environments.
“Cascade is probably the most common hop,” Ryan Houghton, president and owner at the Hop Yard in Gorham, Maine, said. “That one really tends to grow really well almost anywhere. Maybe not southern Florida.”
Maine’s climate and location make it so that many different hop varieties will thrive. “Overall, we’ve had pretty good luck with most varieties [in Maine],” Houghton said. “In Maine, we’ve definitely seen the Cascade, Nugget and Willamette have done really well. There are one or two that didn’t do well. Columbus was one that was tough, and Golding was another.”
Hops are grown from a rhizome, a root cutting from the bine, or propagated plants. Sirrine recommended the latter, which are less likely to carry viruses or disease, but to always make sure you are purchasing from a reputable seller.
“Make sure you’re starting off with clean plants, and make sure the propagation facility that you’re buying them from is reputable,” Sirrine cautioned. “There are varying levels of quality. You should probably contact your local extension to find out what they know.”
In general, hops are susceptible to pests and disease. “Everyone is spraying for downy mildew and powdery mildew,” Houghton said. “Disease is our main concern.”
While there are organic disease management methods are possible for small growers, Sirrine warned that the product might not be as good as those treated with chemicals.
“You can grow them without pesticides, yes. Will you get yields that are high enough quality to put into beer? Probably not,” Sirrine said. “There are organic options for disease and pest control out there. They don’t work as well, but there’s a potential. On a smaller scale, it’s a lot easier to do.”
The apparatus to grow hops — usually a trellis or pole with sturdy wire made from coconut husk called coir, though Sirrine has seen people growing hops up the side of their barn — looks intimidating, but even though hops grow tall they do not require a vast amount of land.
“You can grow quite a bit of hops on pretty minimal acreage,” Sirrine said. For home brewing, you can even get started with a few plants on half an acre or an acre. Sirrine recommend around 12 plants for first-time growers.
Hops grown on a small scale can be picked by hand, but the infrastructure required to harvest and store the hops at a commercial scale starts to add up. According to Miller, picking machines alone generally cost around $20,000. As operations grow larger, things like a dryer, freezing space and baling are also needed.
“You’re looking at about $15,000 an acre for the trellis, the plants and processing equipment,” Miller said. “It is kind of tough for a really small grower.”
There are options for small-scale hop farmers looking to make a little money off their hops, though. Hops can be used two ways in beer. Dried hops are made into pellets that are generally produced by commercial farmers in the Pacific Northwest. Wet hops, on the other hand, need to be used almost immediately by brewers for specialty beers.
“That market works really well for smaller farms,” Houghton explained. “If you have a brewery or a few breweries near there, you can do a wet hop beer and have a little party at the farm.”
“What’s going on now with craft beer movement is that you have a lot of small breweries that have opened up in the last 10 to 15 years and have made it possible for a smaller hop grower to get in the market,“ Miller added.
Miller warned against expecting to turn an enormous profit by farming hops if you plan to do so on a small scale.
“If you’ve got less than five acres, it’s very difficult to make any money,” Miller said. “If you have a brewery that’s very interested in using your hops, even then you have to have a lot of friends who are willing to pick the hops for free. It takes an hour to strip off one plant.”
In Maine, the hop growing scene is growing but will probably stick to larger farms for commercial scale farming.
“There’s been a ton of interest in hops in Maine in the past few years,” Houghton said, especially from dairy and potato farms looking to diversify. “I think Maine is a good place for it, but I don’t think it’ll be a hundred little farms doing it.”
There will be a learning curve in Maine as well. “There’s a bit of knowledge to be obtained,” Houghton said. “Out West, they have had hundreds of years of growing ahead of us. We’re playing catch up.”
Even if the profit prospects for growing hops are less-than-sunny for small farmers and homesteaders, they are still a unique plant to add to a backyard garden for brewers looking to add a personal touch to their hoppy brews.