Hops are mainly known to be a fundamental ingredient in beer production. Growing it is not particularly difficult, it is a climbing perennial that resists well in harsh climates.
Those who are passionate about beer and love to experiment with their own production can think of growing it in the garden: it would be an opportunity to self-produce their own raw materials with natural cultivation. In addition to beer, hops are a medicinal plant: they are used in the making of decoctions and herbal teas with a characteristic bitter taste, very useful against insomnia. The female hop flower, called cone, also has very interesting properties, in particular the calming and sedative effect is known.
With the spread of craft breweries, the organic cultivation of hops has also become very interesting at the level of income agriculture. You can think of creating an organic hops grove to serve breweries that pay attention to the origin and quality of raw materials.
The hop plant
Hops are a shrub with a climbing habit, belonging to the cannabis family (therefore a relative of cannabis sativa). It is a herbaceous that develops in length, with stems that reach 8-9 meters. The roots of hops (humulus lupulus) reach very deep into the ground and survive the winter, while the aerial part dries up in the cold. From the rhizome every spring buds develop which give life to a new plant during the warm seasons. Hops are therefore a perennial crop: a plant can last up to 20 years.
The part of the plant that is collected and used in the production of beer is the female inflorescence, which has a conical shape, as if it were a small pine cone, it is called "cone". The flowering of hops is sexual: there are male plants and female plants. The male flower is not useful except for pollinating. For this reason, male plants are rarely cultivated, they are almost only useful for those seeking to create improving crosses in order to develop new varieties. In the income hops it is preferred to keep only female specimens that are reproduced by cuttings, in this way it is also avoided that the plant reaches the seeds. In some cases it is convenient to keep male pollinators, since there are varieties where the presence of pollen stimulates a greater production of female cones and therefore allows to increase the yield.
Climate and soil suitable for hops
Climate zone. In terms of climate, hops are not suitable plants for hot climates, especially arid ones: they constantly need the soil to be humid and are very afraid of drought. Furthermore, this climber has a certain need for winter cold, which allows the plant to take its months of vegetative rest and then to understand in spring when the time has come to restart to vegetate. It is not for nothing that it is a typical cultivation of central and northern Europe, even in Italy it grows very well especially in the northern areas. The hop plant also wants good sun exposure, better to have plots facing south and not shaded.
The right terrain. The ideal land to grow this perennial plant is a soil rich in organic matter, with a good capacity to retain moisture and a ph value between 6 and 8. The soil should still be loose enough, to allow the roots to grow. expand and go deep, and above all draining, to avoid stagnation that can lead to fungal diseases.
The planting of hops
Soil preparation. Before planting the hops, the soil must be plowed and then worked, until a very loose and light seed bed is obtained. The clods can be milled or better still dig and hoe finely. In this phase, a rich bottom manure is also buried, which must be incorporated into the first twenty centimeters of soil.
Baulature cultivation. Growing hops in raised beds or hops can be very useful for ensuring good drainage for the plants: it involves making small hills about 20/30 cm high along the entire row. In this way, even in the event of heavy rain, the excess water drains into the inter-row and the rhizome is protected from excess moisture.
Plant the hops.The planting of hop seedlings takes place in spring, when no more frosts occur, generally between March and April. The best method is the planting of the rhizome with the buds ready to vegetate, burying it with the shoots upwards and barely covered with earth. After planting, it is important to irrigate daily, in order to prevent the soil around the roots from drying out. You can also start from seed, in this case it is convenient to germinate the seeds in jars which will then be transplanted.
Plant propagation. Hops can only be reproduced from seed if both female and male plants are grown, so that pollination occurs. Generally, the propagation of female plants by cuttings is chosen, which has the great advantage of preserving the genetic heritage of the mother plant. With a reproduction that starts from a piece of the mother plant, plants of the exact same variety are obtained, while pollinating plants with different characteristics are obtained. The simplest propagation is that which occurs by partitioning the tuft, taking a basal sucker of the mother plant.
Propagation by basal suckers. The best way to secure new hop plants is to take the basal suckers from the mother plant. The operation is best done in spring. You must choose suckers with a minimum height of 15 cm, which are collected with their roots, dividing the tuft. After having taken the sucker with its earthen bread it is invaded, it will have to be rooted in the pot by irrigating it daily before being able to transplant it. The hop rhizome is very vigorous and withstands partitions without severe trauma.
Sixth of implant. When planting hops, it must be taken into account that the plants reach a good size and can reach nine meters in length. Generally rows are made at least three meters apart, on which plants are placed every 75/100 centimeters. The row must have suitable supports for the climber, which allow it to support the plant and ensure air circulation, lighting and harvesting comfort.
Supports. The stakes that hold up the plants are usually made by pulling metal cables along the rows. During the first year after planting, it is not necessary to put supports because the plants will not develop much, at most they reach one and a half meters. From the second year, however, the roots will be more formed and it will be necessary to support the long stems. For this reason it is advisable to build supports in the hops grove starting from the spring of the second year. Taking into account the length reached by the hops, structures three or four meters high can be built.
Fertilization of hops. Hops are a plant that must be well fertilized if you want it to produce satisfactorily every year. At the time of planting, it is a good idea to manure: about 3 kilos of manure or mature compost are calculated per square meter to be cultivated. Organic matter and nutrients in smaller quantities will be added each year. If you continue with the manure you can calculate about a kilo per meter, in order to restore when the plant uses to vegetate and produce the cones. Obviously the quantity of fertilizer depends on the characteristics of the soil, so there is no exact recipe a priori.
Weeding. The wild herbs that grow around the cultivated plants must be kept under control, especially during the spring, when the hops are still young and suffer the most from competition. When the plant is formed it needs less cleaning: the stem exceeds three or four meters in height and the roots reach deeper than two and a half meters. Mulching can help both in weed control and in keeping the soil moist.
Application to supports. As the stems grow they must be accompanied on the supporting metal wires, so that they can grow vertically in an orderly manner. Generally, several lines of wire are arranged and the various drums are arranged in pairs on each level.
Reinforcement. Tacking is an important operation for hops. It is carried out every year, between spring and summer, bringing back a little soil to the base of the stem. The purpose of tamping is to support the plant and cover even the most superficial roots. On the occasion of the hilling, all the soil is hoed, aerating the soil and eliminating any roots of weeds.
Irrigation. The hop plant fears drought, although the root system reaches up to three meters deep, the soil must never dry out. For this it is very useful to prepare a drip irrigation system in the hops grove. When it gets wet, you must always be careful to have moderation and not to form stagnations that can cause the root system of the plant to rot. Better to irrigate often with little water than to make occasional large water supplies.
Adversity: parasites and diseases
Illnesses. Hops can be plagued with fungal diseases such as botrytis. These problems are mainly localized in the root system and can be effectively prevented by keeping the soil draining and controlling irrigation. In organic farming, copper treatments are used in case of disease, it must be borne in mind that these are products with toxicity, which accumulate in the soil. Although they are allowed by the organic method, it is better to avoid them. Regular use of horsetail decoction sprinkled on plants helps prevent infections.
Insects. The insects that most frequently attack hops are aphids and spider mites. Both of these parasites can be fought with natural methods, keeping the cultivation in accordance with the dictates of organic farming. I recommend reading the garden guides to cultivate dedicated to the defense against these insects:
- Guide to biological defense against aphids.
- Guide to biological defense against the red spider.
Collection of cones
Collected. The female flowers are formed in late summer, usually the right time for harvesting is from the end of August and throughout the month of September, sometimes even October. It is not difficult to notice on the plant the small conical pinets that must be taken, expect to pick them when they lose excessive moisture and feel rougher to the touch (the cone membranes must seem fragile and have the consistency of paper). At the sight, the ready hop cones are very light green or yellow, slightly browned at the tip.
Drying. To use hops in the production of beer, the female inflorescences must be dried, which is best done immediately after harvest. If you grow your garden as a hobby, you can dry the cones in the oven. You must use the minimum temperature and leave the door just ajar. On the other hand, natural drying requires a dry and dry place, which is heated by the sun but not directly exposed. When a cone breaks easily when bending, it is dry. Drying reduces the weight by about 80% compared to fresh inflorescences.
Storage. Dried cones should be stored in cold and dry places. They can be frozen, vacuum-packed or in glass jars. To maintain the aroma, you must avoid them crushing too much, keeping them away from light, heat and humidity. They can then be directly used in the beer production process.
Variety of hops
The known varieties of hops are many, generally those used for beer are divided into two categories: aromatic hops and bitter hops. Aroma hops are considered “noble” and are those that “spice” beer, for example we recall the Cascade, Fuggles, Spalt, Hallertauer, Mount Hood and Saaz varieties. Bitter hops play an equally important role in determining the taste of beer, although less fine, they give the typical bitter taste. For example, the Nugget, Eroica, Galena, Brewer's Gold and Chinook varieties are among those that have a good bittering power. There are also ambivalent hops that bring flavor and bitterness in equal measure. Those who produce beer must learn to know the taste of each variety of hops, they must be chosen and dosed wisely to obtain the desired final flavor.
Hops in brewing
Hops are one of the most important ingredients in beer production. The other constituent ingredient is barley which turns into malt. If the malt has a sugary flavor, the hops bring the bitterness, so it plays an essential role in forming the peculiar aroma of the alcoholic beverage. Using the right variety of hops is essential for obtaining a good beer.
There are two functions of hops in brewing: to bring aroma and make the taste bitter. There are varieties devoted more to one or the other role. When boiling the beer, you decide when to put the hop cones based on their function. The longer the cone is boiled, the more it transmits bittering power, but when it cooks for a long time it sacrifices a lot of the aroma, because some organoleptic characteristics are thermolabile. For this reason, in the production of craft beer, the hops that must give the bitterness are boiled for a long time, while the flavoring hops are used only in the last half hour of boiling. For brewing, hop extracts or pellets obtained by pressing the flowers are also available, but the most natural method is the one that involves the addition of the simple dried cone.
For those who are passionate about brewing, the possibility of growing their own hops directly means having full control of the raw materials and being able to create an organic and natural beer, as well as doubling the satisfaction.
Use and properties of hops
Although in most cases hops are grown for use in beer production, it is a medicinal plant that also offers other uses and is renowned for its relaxing effect.
Alternative uses to beer. Hops are also used in the production of other beverages: in Latin America mortar is made and in Scandinavia the Christmas Julmust. To take advantage of the medicinal properties of the plant, dried hop cones can be used to make decoctions and herbal teas with a bitter taste, which have known relaxing properties.
Use of hops in the kitchen. The apical shoots of wild hops are very similar to asparagus, both for their aesthetic appearance and for their culinary use. They are found as a spontaneous plant and are harvested in spring. They can be eaten after cooking, generally they are cooked in omelettes or risottos. the taste is bitter and aromatic.
Properties of hops. The female hop flower has important medicinal properties and has been used as a medicinal plant for centuries. The bitter principles contained in the cone are a valid gastro stimulator, which is why it has digestive and appetite stimulating power. It is not for nothing that beer is an excellent aperitif drink and goes well with heavy dishes. The calming and sedative properties of this plant make it an excellent remedy for insomnia and stress, better to avoid taking hops during pregnancy.