Just because I didn’t have enough to do in fall, I planted hops. Actually, I planted them for other reasons, but in the middle of vegetable harvest, having to harvest hops turned into a two-day marathon that left me scratched, itching, and sticky from lupulin.
Growing the plant is easy, but knowing when to harvest is a trick – I went to the Brewing Techniques website, to a wonderful article by Stephanie Montell, entitled Hops in the Backyard: From Planting to Harvest and the Hazards in Between.
Montell’s article is a great resource for rookie hops growers, providing solid advice for getting those cones from the vine. But applied to a life like mine, well, the results were mixed.
“Determine the readiness for picking by feel and smell. If the cone is too green, it feels slightly damp to the touch and has a softness to its scales. If you squeeze the cone, it will stay compressed in your hand. A ready cone will feel papery and light.” A light tweak told me mine were ready.
We had a wet storm bearing down on us, and, never picking hops before, I assessed the vines and thought I could squeeze it in before making supper. An hour and a half later, my spouse wandered over to check on progress. I’d only gleaned cones from one-third of one plant, so he asked the only part of me he could see – my head and shoulders were inside the vine mass – if he should get dinner rolling.
Mumbling about giving up for the evening soon, I wriggled upwards to grasp a few more cones from the back. “Do you need a headlamp?” he offered, and I knew that I’d need to return another day to finish.
“If your hands quickly take up the smell and are slightly sticky due to the yellow powdery lupulin, that cone is ready for harvest.” This advice is excellent, and very accurate. At the beginning, I worried about not having sticky hands after handling a few hops; after a half-hour, my hands were pleasantly gummy and my spouse thought my new perfume very appealing.
But hops are a spiny vine, and my arms were getting badly scratched; I had to wear long sleeves to a florist event the next day just to cover the signs of those spines. The next time I sallied out to finish picking – giving myself an entire day to get it done – I swaddled myself in long sleeves and sweats to protect my skin.
Once the plants were stripped, it was time to turn my attention to curing them for storage.
“The cones must be properly dried to optimize their qualities during storage. Although hops can be used fresh, the results will be unpredictable. Hops are 70% moisture when ripe, but only 10% when dried to the equivalent of commercial hops,” Montell instructed, “This can be done in a food dehydrator, homemade hop dryer, or well-vented oven.”
Staring at the two bushels of cones, I reflected on the size of the oven needed to dry these down. The dehydrator was out – it couldn’t keep up with the tomatoes, much less enough hops to open my own brewpub. Lacking any other options, I went low-tech, spreading the cones in a single layer to dry in the sheds. The plural is deliberate here – I had enough hops to cover all available flat surfaces in two sheds.
“They are ready for storage when springy to the touch and the lupulin powder easily falls out. Another indicator is when the central stem breaks rather than bends. The stem takes much longer to dry than the petals, so you will know when the cones are ready for storage. This should take approximately three days.” A week later and I’m still checking for dryness; my system is a bit slow. But they’re getting close and I’ll bag and freeze them until my homebrewing friends make a few batches.
Or a few hundred batches, considering the amount I harvested.