If you have a little land or even a sunny porch, you can grow enough of your own hops and herbs to make a real contribution to the flavor, aroma, and uniqueness of your homemade beer recipes.
People brew beer for a lot of reasons, but the two most important things to do in homebrewing are to enjoy yourself and to make beer that you like.
From those just getting started to small farmers looking to expand their repertoire, the pages of The Homebrewer’s Garden, 2nd Edition (Storey Publishing, 2016), by Joe and Dennis Fisher, contain no shortage of growing and brewing inspiration. For the garden, there are sections filled with advice about small-space hops cultivation, trellising, the latest grain-growing techniques, tips for successful hop, herb and grain cultivation, troubleshooting, and more. And for the beer, there’s a collection of delicious recipes for 32 specialty homebrews just like this one. Filled with wisdom from two men who have experienced it firsthand, this book is the essential guide for the gardener who loves beer.
We started brewing beer in the early 1990s, during the first great wave of homebrewing interest after things got going in the 1970s. As organic gardeners, we wanted to grow our own hops right away and it was natural enough, a little later, to combine these two disciplines in a book called The Homebrewer’s Garden. These were practically pre-Internet times, and there was very little information available to the homebrewer on home growing. Our book filled that void with descriptions and growing tips on unusual and mostly unused historical brewing herbs and basic hop and barley cultivation and processing information.
Many things have changed since those early days, not only in homebrewing and in the larger beer culture but also in our own lives. We moved back to Maine; bought some land; built houses, barns, and greenhouses; became organic farmers; and kept growing hops and brewing beer. Meanwhile, in the greater world, small brewing was a sleeping giant that stirred, yawned, stretched, and woke up roaring. Beer — good beer — is now pretty much everywhere. Organic beer, while still a niche market, is a strong niche. The number of new businesses, not just breweries and tasting rooms but also malt houses, homebrew suppliers, and hop farms, is almost staggering. We live in a golden age. Many of the people founding these businesses started out as homebrewers. We were pleased to learn that a few of the people we interviewed for this new edition of the book read our first edition when they were beginning grower-brewers.
Not long ago, we looked about and noticed that we had a couple of decades of growing experience under our belts and that it seemed like a good time to update The Homebrewer’s Garden, to reflect not only what we have learned but also the changes in the world of beer. Since we wrote the first edition, many new varieties of hops and barley have appeared, and some of these would be great additions to any home-growing operation. The small farming revolution that parallels the one in brewing (and we have a foot in both camps) has meant that tools, materials, and information that used to be difficult or impossible to find are now available to the home grower. We’ll tell you how to find and use them to grow great brewing ingredients in your own garden.
Homebrewers today can buy most of what they need in homebrew supply stores or online, and this is a great convenience for all concerned. But if you have a little land or even a sunny porch, you can grow enough of your own hops, herbs, and adjuncts to make a real contribution to the flavor, aroma, and uniqueness of your homebrew. Everything you need to make beer can be grown in garden-size plots, including grains for malting. And even if you grow nothing at all, we can still show you how to find and use a variety of unusual brewing ingredients, and how to modify grains by roasting, toasting, and smoking. You may be more interested in hops than in other kinds of herbs. We’ll tell you where to find hop rhizomes, where to plant them, how to tend them, and how to harvest and use the hop flowers. Or you may want to learn about malting, but not about growing grain. We tell you how to locate various types of grains and what to do with them once you’ve found them. We also provide recipes using homemade grains, homegrown hops, herbs, and adjuncts.
The reasons for growing your own are many. First of all, it gives you a tremendous amount of control over what does and what doesn’t go into your beer. We got started growing our own in large part because we were organic gardeners and wanted to use organic ingredients. And while a lot has changed in the brewing world since the first edition of our book came out, one thing that is still true is that organic brewing ingredients can be hard to find.
Second, you can improve the quality of your beer by using your own ingredients. You will know that your hops, herbs, malts, and other ingredients are at their peak of freshness if you are in charge of their growing, harvesting, drying, and storage. You will also find that having a backlog of brewing ingredients is a great incentive to brew more beer.
Also, growing your own can cut your costs, especially when it comes to hops. Hops aren’t getting any cheaper, and sometimes shortages can drive up the price or make some varieties unavailable. Nothing says beer security like a freezer full of your own homegrown hops.
A third point is local flavor. Along with the local food movement, a parallel local brewing movement has sprouted — and nothing is more local than using your own homegrown and processed hops, herbs, and malts. A concept borrowed from winemaking, terroir, is useful here. It means a place’s sense of taste, or its home flavor: a product of the soil, geology, geography, climate, and every other factor that bears on growing crops. Your beer is not going to taste the same as anyone else’s, because you grew some or all of the ingredients at home. You can also discover what strains of barley and hops do best in your growing area. For example, we grow a “wild” hop discovered near here that thrives in our soils and climate. It seems to be naturally resistant to a lot of hop pests and seems more productive than imports that we’ve tried.
Fourth, home growing puts you in touch with the history of brewing and opens up new avenues for experimentation. Both are goals for many homebrewers. Beyond simple historical interest, there are plenty of herbs and other little-used adjuncts out there that make great beer. You can now find dried versions of many of these in your local homebrew store or online. But to use them fresh, you have to grow your own.
Finally, it’s fun. And let’s not underestimate the value of having a good time in homebrewing. It’s great to enter contests and win ribbons. It’s also nice to save money by homebrewing instead of buying pricey microbrews and imports (up to 1,000 percent if you compare the cost of a batch of simple homebrewed bitter made with purchased ingredients to the cost of a glass of beer in a brewpub). But if you aren’t having fun, what’s the point?
Gardening and brewing are two highly complementary disciplines. Both require intelligence, patience, independent-mindedness (which homebrewers have by the barrelful), respect for the craft, and a willingness to experiment and to learn. Plus, the products of each can be used in the other: Herbs, fruit, grains, and vegetables go into beer, and you can recycle brewing residues in your garden. Nothing is wasted. The growth of interest in gardening, especially in growing old-fashioned or heirloom varieties of plants instead of hybrids, is part of the same search for quality that is fueling the growth of homebrewing and microbrewing.
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