This time of year when I walk past the chicken run, I am reminded of my favorite fermented beverage. And no, it is not because my chickens drive me to drink, but because of what is growing on the west facing side of the run. We have hops!
We deliberately planted hops in that location for two reasons. First, they provide much needed shade to the chickens during the summer and second, because the vines grow to about 15′ in our region. Given that the hops grow up and over the run, they have ample room vine without getting in the way of our other crops.
Since mid-August through September are the traditional months for hop harvest, we have been checking ours daily for signs that they are ready.
For starters, we check the appearance of the ‘cone’, which is the female hop flower. In the photo to the right, the mature cones are intermingled with immature ones. The cones are ready for harvest when the bracts appear less tight as well as the lower bracts begin to brown at the tips slightly The overall appearance of the cones may be a lighter green in color versus immature cones.
Another good visual indicator is the appearance of a yellowish powder at the base of the bracts. This powder is lupulin and it is what helps give a ‘hoppy’ beer it’s taste and aroma. (A mature cone will have this aroma.) To release the aroma, squeeze a cone. When I do this, I am reminded of one of my favorite beers. If the aroma is lacking when I squeeze a cone, it is not yet ready.
Besides appearance, the texture of the cone will change as it matures. An immature cone will stay compressed when squeezed whereas a mature cone will feel quite dry and papery (similar to tissue paper). It should be noted though, the lupulin has a slightly sticky texture in a ripe cone, but will be more watery in an under-ripe one. Do not confuse the stickiness with the moisture content of an immature cone.
All hop cones are not ready at the same time. As a result, prepare for multiple harvests. In the photo to the left, the cones are being inspected for maturity. Only those that are papery and have a hoppy aroma are harvested at this point. Do not be afraid to squeeze a cone between your fingers to test while you pick. The cones that receive the most light (or at the top of the plant) will be ready first.
Hops also have hairs which may irritate the skin. To avoid this, those that harvest by hand tend to wear gloves.
For reference we planted one Nugget and two Cascade hop plants on our homestead. We planted different varieties given that each has a particular flavor profile. Three plants should also be more than enough for us to brew a five gallon batch of beer. Given the
quantity of hop cones we have this season, we are looking at least three separate pickings.
Harvested cones must be dried before they are stored. A cone has approximately 70% moisture content and if not adequately dried, the cones may mold. For the home grower, a dehydrator is a popular choice. These devices have multiple trays and are capable of drying at a low temperatures (hops should never be dried at temperatures in excess of 140F otherwise this will negatively effect the flavor and aroma of the hops). If you do not have access to a dehydrator, you can go with a low tech option of drying on screens. In the photo to the right, we built a drying screen from scrap lumber and 1/4″ grid wire screen. The screen is stapled to the bottom of the shallow box. It allows good air flow, but the grid is small enough that even when dried, the cones do not fall through. The cones will take on a ‘springy’ texture when dried as well as the lupulin easily coming out of the cone if tapped.
After drying, you may bag (plastic) and freeze cones until you are ready start a batch of home brew.
Hops are a great addition to an urban homestead. They are easy to grow, can be harvested by hand, and are dried in just a few days. Imagine enjoying this unique taste of summer in your very own bottled beer.