Nobody forgets the first time they experience the up-close aroma of hops. Mine happened on a warm, late-summer Michigan day. My dad and I had just each picked a “wild” heirloom hop cone growing on our family farm. Tearing mine open, I revealed the buttery orange inside that smelled like nothing I’d ever before sniffed. Senses are often linked to memory, and this sensory experience is hard for me to describe with words. Bursting with fragrance, our hops smelled brilliantly floral and citrusy. The thick oils clung to our fingers, reminding me that these cones had substance. I could only imagine how they would taste in a nice cold craft beer.
Since that fateful moment, we’ve had a lot of fun establishing our small hops farm. This journey that led me to hobby farming has turned out to be unusual, but with a little learn-as-you-go and a lot of hard work, anybody can become a successful hop farmer. Hops grow up, not out, climbing anything they can in a clockwise manner. It doesn’t take a lot of space to grow hops, just a strong work ethic and dedication.
By definition, hops are the flowers of the hop plant (Humulus lupulus). The majority of hops grown are used as flavoring agent in beer. Hops were first used in beer as an antibacterial, keeping harmful bacteria out and extending the shelf life of beer. The India pale ale (or IPA) is one “hoppy” example of this. The IPA was created way back when beer made the long journey from England to the British colonies in India. Because of the long trek by sailing vessel and lack of proper refrigeration, these India pale ales had to be extra full of the hops to make sure that no bacteria grew.
There are a multitude of uses for hops, but in my family, we have decided to focus on growing them and marketing them for use in craft beer.
Grapes grow on vines, while hops grow on bines, and they’ll always climb whatever structure they are growing up in a clockwise fashion. Without limits, an aggressive hop bine will easily climb over 25 feet in one growing season. There is a distinct male and female version of the plant. Hop farmers try to propagate the female plants, because only the females produce the cones (flowers). The thick, oily pollen in the hop cones contains precious alpha and beta acids, as well as flavors that craft beer lovers crave.
Our hops farm
As I hinted earlier, I sort of fell into hop farming by the grace of God. We live on a farm that’s been in my family for more than 100 years. Somewhere along the line, my ancestors were brewing beer, and we think they got really serious during Prohibition. One thing led to another, and their old hop yard became overgrown. Our best guess is that as the years passed, the hops must have gotten choked out. In his retirement, my dad started to reclaim some of the land and get things back under control. After he trimmed back bushes and less desirable trees, the hops came back with a vengeance.
We handpicked our first official harvest, and the local craft beer juggernaut Bell’s Brewery used our new Herbert Wild Heirloom Hops in their Harvest Ale. The Harvest Ale was a huge success, and since then, local craft brewers and some smaller breweries have become fond of our Herbert Wilds as well. We then began to propagate wild hops in an actual garden setting.
Regardless of whether someone is propagating a popular commercially grown hop or a wild one like we discovered, the process is the same. Hops need to be grown in full sun and well-drained soil. They are propagated by digging up rhizomes and replanting them in the spring, as soon as the ground thaws. We put each hop rhizome approximately 3 to 4 inches into the ground, about 1 or 2 feet away from its sister. We strive to be as organic and natural as possible, while also keeping within our budget, so we grow our hops on black locust poles.
Black locust is an invasive tree species here in Michigan, and it’s well sought-after in the farming community for its fencing and pole properties because it never rots, at least not in one lifetime. We cut the poles, trim the branches, and don’t even bother to bark them. We simply get out the posthole digger, drill down about 3 feet, and drop the pole in. To the best of our ability, we typically get about a 13-foot-high pole, with 3 feet in the ground. Commercial hop farms try to get up near the 21- to 22-foot mark. We don’t have the equipment that commercial farms use and are happy with 13-foot poles, in large part because our 12-foot ladder is the perfect size.
We run about 20 to 30 feet of reclaimed electrical wire between our hop poles. Currently, we’re running three poles in a row, with a deadman anchor on the ends to keep the poles upright. Commercial farms typically run barbed wire across the top instead of electrical wire, so that each line doesn’t slide toward another when the weight of the summer hop bines set in, and beginning this year, we are going to use barbed wire on our new hop poles. I purchase coconut-fiber twine to grow my hops on from a local commercial hops farm. We anchor the twine by each hop plant and then tie off the top onto the electrical wire. We use duct tape to hold the upper portion in place along the wire.
It didn’t take us long to realize the reason for using barbed wire — eventually the weight of the hop bine causes the upper portion to slip to the lowest point of the wire, creating a giant snag. The snag is really not a big deal, but it is nice to keep the twines separate when it comes time for harvesting.
From that point, the work is minimal during summer. It helps to water and fertilize them. It also helps to keep the weeds out. I also recommend trimming back all of the sucker bines so that each plant is only allowed to shoot up two bines total. By allowing each plant two bines, we encourage maximum cone production.
Also, depending on the weather, using a fungicide can be important. A few years ago, a downy mildew devastated our plants. In warm, humid spring conditions, the fungal problems can be a mess. For us, one of the hardest parts about being organic is finding an effective fungicide.
Reap the reward
Harvest time for us is generally close to Labor Day. When it’s harvest time, it’s all hands on deck, because harvested hops are very time-sensitive. We usually use harvest time as a great excuse to host a hop-picking party. Most of our hops are grown on twines, but not all of them. Growing on the coconut-fiber twines saves us a lot of time, because we simply cut the top and bottom off and throw them in the truck or trailer. We then cover them with a tarp and drive them over to the local commercial hops farm as soon as possible. Time is of the essence to get a premium harvest with the perfect smells that we are looking for. There are naturally occurring bacteria on the hops that starts the decaying process immediately after picking, so getting them dried as soon as possible is really important.
If we are selling to a brewery or packaging for homebrewers, the commercial hop farm immediately dries our hops and pelletizes them for us. In the meantime, back at the homestead, the hop-picking party is in full swing. Everyone of age is drinking any leftover homebrew from the previous year (their compensation), sitting around outside enjoying the weather, and handpicking all of the leftover hops from bines not grown on twine. These handpicked hops are immediately put into Rubbermaid totes and thrown onto our dehydrators at the lowest possible setting. Hand drying hops is a science within itself, and almost every hop farmer does it differently. I’ve seen people place hops on window screens and strap them to box fans. I’ve also known a family that built a hop drying room in their garage. The key to hand drying hops is to make sure they stay out of the sunlight and away from heat. It needs to be cool and dry to best dry hops.
Ideally, hops will be dried down to about 8 to 10 percent moisture content. Dried too much, the hops shatter and lose quality. When left too wet, the hops turn brown, get musty and moldy, and smell similar to grass or hay. Be sure to research how to calculate moisture percentages. Michigan State University Extension has lots of great information available for potential hop farmers at www.MSUE.anr.msu.edu. Once we feel that our handpicked hops are dry enough, someone will quickly vacuum seal them and throw them in the freezer.
I admit, my handpicking-dehydrating-vacuum sealing method is less effective than the commercial farm, but it’s better than letting any of the precious hops go to waste. The first year that we got serious about it, we ended up with 102 pounds of fresh or wet hops from 16 propagated plants. I was thrilled with those results and incredibly disappointed the next year when my hops became infected with the mildew that plagued Michigan because of an incredibly wet spring. Coming into our third year, we were proactive and used an organic fungicide, ensuring that the mildew did not plague us. The mildew did not become an issue, because we did not get much rain at all, and we only ended up growing about 60 pounds of wet hops from 64 propagated plants. We will be researching some irrigation options for the future, but like everything else in life, we live and learn. I can honestly say that growing hops has been a practice in flexibility because I have yet to predict what they will need to achieve their potential from one season to the next.
Whether I am marketing the samples that we hand dried or the farm-pelletized, we raise awareness of our hops in different ways. Incredibly fortunate to live in and call “The Mitten” home, Michigan is leading the charge in the booming craft beer industry. There are small breweries everywhere, and whenever I go near one, I drop off a sample of our hops along with the laboratory analysis results. I also take advantage of social media marketing options — we have a Facebook page and Instagram account established for our farm.
We’re also working with a few local printing companies for logo wear, stickers, mugs, and more. My hope is to make Herbert Wild Heirloom Hops a household name among craft beer enthusiasts.
Make the most of it
After the harvest is over, we take the fall off to hunt, and then it’s back to work. Winter gives us time to harvest more black locust poles for future use. Even if we don’t plan to set the poles this season, we’ll still cut them and stock them at the farm for future use. When someone offers to give us black locust, we don’t waste any time grabbing them. We also spread cow, pig, and goat manure over the hop yard in the winter. The manure is a great natural fertilizer.
Because of the manure we add, our farm will never certify “organic,” because the manure comes from local farmers who may not all be certified organic. We are OK with that, and try to be as natural as possible with the things that we can control.
Additionally, we keep bees near our hops, for a few reasons. First, hop oils are supposed to help bees resist the nasty varroa mite. And, honey takes on the flavor of its surrounding flowers, and I can’t wait to market our delicious Herbert Wild Hop Honey. We also have birdhouses on a few poles to help keep pests like bugs and caterpillars out of our crop.
And I love brewing with our hops. So far, my favorite recipe is a basic American pale ale, finished with an extra dose of Herbert Wilds. My buddy once made an IPA with 14 hop additions; the last was Herbert Wild, and it too was excellent beer. To be completely honest, I haven’t met a beer yet that I didn’t like, but it’s just that much better when they’re brewed with our own hops.
To put it short and simple: Hops are really easy to grow. In fact, without being controlled, they can almost become invasive. I would encourage any Grit reader who is remotely interested in growing hops to give it a try. We have learned a lot and it’s been fun for my family. Cheers from us to you!
• Along with beer, hops have several other uses. Along with anti-inflammatory qualities, hops aid in digestion and have an antispasmodic effect, calming restless stomachs. When steeped in a tea, dried hops may help with irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and ulcers.
• The antibacterial qualities of hops are often utilized in natural deodorants and other cleansing products.
• Beekeepers know well the benefits of HopGuard and HopGuard II, the varroa mite pesticide.
• In the old days, people would stuff a pillow with dried hops to help cure insomnia. Their aroma has also been helpful in reducing anxiety. Scientists continue research with regard to hops and its effects on symptoms related to menopause and menstruation.
• Some innovative chefs are cooking with young, tender hop shoots and leaves. Many distilleries are using hops to flavor their craft whiskeys. A quick search online will yield several creative ways to incorporate hops into a diet.
Jason Herbert is a happily married father of four living in southwest Michigan. Herbert makes his living as a public school teacher, but spends as much time as possible outdoors. The Herberts homestead on a small family farm and try to raise, catch, kill, or harvest for all of their food needs.
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