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Posts Tagged ‘Hops’

A pitfall of being a gardener is overconfidence.  After triumphing over soil, weather, and a few insects, there’s a swagger to your walk; you find yourself smugly thinking you could master any plant your heart desires.  When you reach that point, there’s always one that calls your bluff. 

In my case, it’s hops, the essential element in beer.  A friend convinced me to put in two plants with a simple plan: grow hops, harvest them, and trade them to brewers for beer. 

The first season was an easy, no-brainer, I thought, since the vines with hand-shaped leaves stayed small and well behaved.  In the winter they died back, and I snipped off the spent vine and tucked in the roots for winter.

The second year, the hops settled in, crawling up the fence and spilling over the side.  “Must be why they call them Cascades,” I thought, “they’re cascading all over the neighbor’s yard.”  Pulling them back, I harvested the cones and offered them to home brewers.

Now in their third season, they’re showing their true nature: alarming.  Not content with climbing the fence, my hops grabbed the neighbor’s apple tree, vining up to cover the branches in an aromatic blanket.  Staring up at the harvest dangling 20 feet above my head, all I could think was “Houston, we have a problem.”

“They’re really vigorous; they’ll climb over anything. They’ll take over bushes, ornamental plants,” says Ali Hamm, Hops Specialist with Summit Plant Laboratories, Inc., in Fort Collins (plantlabs.com/).  “There are reports of them getting 50-feet tall, but in Colorado they’ll only get about 25 feet.”

Hamm spent four years on what many college students might consider a dream project: researching the best types of hops for our area at Colorado State University.  The high yielding plant shows promise for Colorado growers; warm days, cool nights, low humidity and few pests keep problems away.  Once established, hops are also drought tolerant.

The market for local hops looks strong.  “People in Colorado will always be drinking beer, and there will always be hops in it,” says Hamm, “I think it’s a great crop to be growing here, but I’m biased about it.”  She estimates the industry is two to five years from being established, mainly due to large up front costs of trellising and post harvest equipment.

Brewers are watching the fledgling industry closely, which currently has 75 acres in production.  “We used to get wet hops from Yakima Valley (Washington), but we want to use local hops for our beer,” says Ro Guenzel, Head Brewer for Left Hand Brewing Company in Longmont (lefthandbrewing.com/).  “They’re better, fresher, and we can visit the fields to select the rows that we want.”

Wet hops, unprocessed cones used within 12 hours of harvest, are expensive to ship by overnight express for brewing Left Hand’s Warrior beer.  Now Guenzel brings in his hops from Sunrise Farm in Paonia, which picks and packs the hops onto small airplanes for a quick trip over the mountains to Longmont. 

 “We can only make a wet hop beer once per year, when hops are picked.  Since they’re not dried, there’s no loss of volatile oils.  They provide a different character to the beer, it’s a little greener, brighter flavor,” he said.  Balancing malty sweetness with a touch of bitterness is not all hops do; each type brings its own flavor to the brew.  “Hops can be citrusy, piney, earthy – they’re all unique.”

Guenzel was happy to take the two bushels of hops harvested from my plants to add to the Warrior brew.  “Cascades are the most widely used, they’re the quintessential hop.”  But Hamm also recommends Chinook, Crystal, or Nugget for people who want a tried and true plant.  Then get to know your neighbor, taking them beer in exchange for their patience with your vine. 

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This spring has brought a new level of anticipation to the garden, one that has me impatient for fall.  No, it’s not the delectable tomatoes or sweet melons from the vegetable garden – though I’m looking forward to them, too.

 This year, the adventure lies in growing hops.  Cascade beer hops to be exact; not the ornamental Golden or native vines.  My garden is a working one, where few plants are allowed to just sit and look pretty.  Food, flowers for vases, shade for the seating area, or keeping beneficial insects around – everyone has a job in this landscape.  spring hops

 So do these vines. Early on they help screen the neighbors, rambling along fence tops and sides.  Later they’ll be picked, dried, and taken down to the local brewery where my buddy Mari has arranged to trade them for beer.

 Mari, a gardener, beekeeper, and dynamite photographer, connected with the local brewpub a few years ago when hops prices started soaring world-wide.  Having hops as a novelty in her garden, she hatched a brilliant plan.  The result is a few frosty bottles of brew after a summer of beauty in the yard.

 Gardeners swap all the time, so this barter of hops for beer fits perfectly with our lifestyle; Mari also shares cutting from her plant to get others started for low cost.  Yes, hops need water the first season to get established, but not in huge gulps.  Instead, frequent light watering and mulch to keep their roots consistently moist the first year is best.   young hops

 After that, a dripline to provide deep, infrequent water is all you need.  Mine are planted behind the roses and perennials they seem happy enough with no extra fuss.

But you have to trellis them or they’ll quickly run over the ground, wind around plants and start snatching small pets from the street – put a trellis (in my case a folded tomato cage) behind them and firmly direct them in their growth.  You need to thin them too, taking off weaker vines and keeping only the three most vigorous ones.  This pushes energy into the development of the best vines and a much better crop.

Watch out for aphids, a chronic problem on hops, but don’t worry about using more than a spritz or two of soapy water to control them.  You’ll soon find lady bugs and other predators working the plants to keep the aphids in check.   nearing ripenes

 Pick your hops from the top of the plant down; those growing highest ripen first.  You’ll know when they’re ripe by feel and smell. Green cones feel a little moist and soft, and stay compressed if you squeeze it. Ripe cones feel light and dry, and may look a little lighter in color. 

 Dry the hops on a mesh screen in the shade and out of wind for several days, turning the cones daily to keep drying even.  They’re perfect when the stem breaks easily if bent.  Then trot them down to your local brewpub to bargain for beer.  drying cones

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