It’s really satisfying to drink something you’ve grown yourself, and if you research a little into barley you’ll probably find that your garden’s too small to grow a useful amount. But hops can be grown on just a few square feet of earth, and if you set up a vertical rope for it to climb, for instance, up the side of your house or a tall wall, the footprint is just a couple of square feet for each vine.
It’s a low-maintenance, vigorous, perennial plant too. I have only two vines myself – Fuggles – and after almost forgetting about them for a few months, by August of the second year after I planted them they’d produced enough hops for several 5 gallon brews. First year harvests will be smaller. I grew mine against a south facing wall which catches the sun and stores its heat overnight, which probably helps the vines. I bought rhizomes for my vines on Willingham Nursuries and planted them in March, as soon as the threat of frost was over. You need to plant the rhizomes as soon as they arrive, so don’t order them until March. The rhizomes should start shooting in earnest in April.
As you can see, I didn’t put much effort into training the vines, but this didn’t seem to hurt the yield – it just hurt me, when it came to harvest time. Hop stems irritate your skin, and because of the mess I let the plants get into I had to reach through a lot of vines. Hop picking can be a hot unpleasant business, and you should wear gloves and long sleeves. I didn’t. You’ll know the hops are ready to harvest when the cones feel dry to the touch and spring back into shape after you squeeze them. If you cut a ripe hop cone into halves, inside you’ll see yellow dots of sticky lupulin which emit a strong hoppy odour.
This was about a third of my first year harvest.
Unless you brew a LOT of beer, you’ll need to dry most of your harvest and store it in sealed containers (some people freeze theirs in freezer bags). Exposure to the air reduces the aroma over time. It must be thoroughly dry before you store it or it can go bad.
I built an oast (low-temperature kiln) for my malt, which I’m going to use to dry my hops this year. I didn’t kiln the hops from last August, and several bags went rancid before I had a chance to brew with them. I”l post my kiln design here soon, but if you have a food dehydrator, that’d be perfect. You can also use an oven with only the interior light switched on, and a good source of ventilation. There’s a great video on YouTube of an oven used with a hotplate and fan as a malt oast. If you try something similar with hops, the temperature in the oven must not go above 60C.
As I dried my hops last year, in an improvised drying rack, lots of these lupulin glands were falling off and building up on the floor. It broke my heart to see all this flavour going to waste but it’s still amazing to see just how much lupulin must have been in the cones.