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This year’s hop harvest may have seemed a lot of fiddly work at the time and a hot slog on a sunny September weekend, but it proved well worth it in the end. And at an average price to homebrewers of around a fiver per 100g for new crop hops this year, ‘growing yer own’ is fast becoming an essential boost for those Winter milds, poters and stouts.

The hops had been drying in the makeshift ‘loft oast’ for around ten days when we ventured up to retrieve them. It took a little while as its best to handle fresh hops as delicately as possible in order to retain as much lupulin as possible. All three varieties were nice and dry and just needed packing in bags for storage. I say just….

Now, packing hops is a massive pain in the backside. We don’t have a vacuum sealer and perhaps one of those might be a good idea next year, but even so. Our method is to cram hops into zip lock bags so tightly that there is very little air inside. The bags we use are heavy duty 10″ by 7″ jobs bought in bulk from eBay a while back. If you work and work at it, you can get 100g inside each one, dry weight after taking the bag itself into account. I can’t lie, it’s not easy, but it is very effective and each big is literally ram-packed.

Anyway, check out our efforts below. It took a while, and our fingers were pretty stained and bitter for a day or two afterwards, but it was quite a haul for just three small plants. We now have 400g WGV, 300g Fuggles and 133g Bramling Cross from the 2009 harvest. Not bad at all and perfect for seasonal milds and that all important batch of Christmas Dry Stout!

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A free September weekend following several days of dry, windy weather billowing through the Boxshed garden, seemed as good a time as any to bring in this year’s hop harvest.

We finally got stuck in at lunchtime on Saturday, and were still at it on Sunday afternoon. Be warned that harvesting hops with any degree of care takes a lot longer than you might think, particularly when you only have a couple of plants and they feel a little precious after months of bine twiddling, feeding and watering.

Just to remind you, we have just three varieties here, which are each grown along wires stretched across two fence panels apiece. These plants are now in their second year, and the difference in the number of hop cones on all plants compared to year one was obvious from the early Summer months. The WGV Goldings went crazy once again, tangling themselves up with all manner of other plants and even managing to grow across the other side of the fence and across the roof of our neighbours’ garage. The Fuggles were perhaps the most impressive this year though, with fewer but impressively larger cones than the WGV. Particularly pleasing was the improvement in the Bramling Cross, which struggled to produce any cones last year but looked really attractive this time round and offered up plenty of bunches of good looking green hops to pick.

We aim to harvest our hops in early September after several days of dry weather and just before the cones start to turn brown. This year all the hops seemed to mature earlier than in 2008. I wouldn’t say they were all ‘papery’, but they were certainly full of orange-yellow lupulin (the good stuff) and would have certainly gone past their best if another week of rain had set in. So down they came.

Our harvesting technique isn’t particularly refined, but seems to work just fine. We use chunky kitchen scissors to cut down manageable chunks of bine from the wires in lengths of about a metre at a time. We then snip each cone at its base into a bin liner stretched over a fermenting bucket and throw spent bines and leaves into the compost or brown bin. We have ripped off the cones by hand in the past, which can be quicker, but I worry that we lose a lot of lupulin this way, so probably waste a lot of time with all the over-careful snipping.

We managed to harvest an overflowing 25 litre fermenter bin full of WGV, nearly as much Fuggles, and around half a bin of Bramling. We were really pleased with this, as well as the quality of most of the cones. Frankly, as you’ll see in the photos, we couldn’t really handle many more hops using our current drying technique (but piles of newspaper pockets would work just fine, no doubt).

The next step was get the things drying, and we decided to use the technique that worked best last year – the loft oast! The idea is that a combination of scattering hops at a single depth on a dry absorbent surface, warmth from the house below and a hot airy loft gets the hops dry quickly and without any fear of mould or rotting. It worked a treat in 2008, so was a no-brainer this year. Of course the increased volume of hops made it a trickier operation. We ‘carpeted’ all available loft space with cardboard removal boxes stored for the purpose, then began scattering from the far end, leaving obvious gaps between the three varieties. Once we were done and ‘painted into a corner’ back by the loft hatch, we surveyed our green pungent crop like hydroponic drugs barons before retreating back to the house below for a week or two.

So all-in-all, a successful and very satisfying Harvest ’09 so far, with plenty of hops drying away happily above our heads. Take a look at the gallery below if you’d like to see for yourself how it all went, and feel free to drop us a line if you want to share your own hop harvest tales or ask anything at all. We’ll post an update soon once all the cones are dry and we put them in storage.

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Plenty of East Anglian sunshine with the occasional traditional deluge of rain is literally suiting our hops down to the ground!

Apart from some help from the hose during drier spells, plus a bit of evening bine twiddling, they’ve pretty much been left to themselves this year, and we’re really pleased with progress, especially for the little Bramling, which was a late starter.

See for yourselves!

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An update on the progress of our three hop plants. Despite me clumsily butchering the roots of the WGV and Fuggles in order to take some quite simple plantable samples for my dear old bruv, all is going very well indeed. The WGV and Fuggles will be used in as many batches of Dark Garden as I can muster in the Autumn. The Bramling Cross is a rather more reserved old stick, and if we get any cones at all for use in aroma additions I’ll be very happy.

Here are some photos from lunchtime today:

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Well, Spring has definitely sprung and the purple budded hop bines in the Boxshed garden have braved the morning frosts, pushed themselves through the ground and started their mad journey towards the end of the fence.

We only grow three varieties of hops ourselves right now, and didn’t get around to planting any more rhyzomes this year. But we did harvest a pretty decent yield from our first year and we’re hoping for even better results from these second year bines. They’re not doted on in any special way, really. They get plenty of water everyday once they start growing, and are fed with any tomato or veggie food that happens to be around as the summer progresses. We then pick ’em, dry ’em and store ’em around September time.

The three varieties are WGV Goldings, Fuggles and Bramling Cross. The first two contributed to several Autumn and Winter brews, while the Bramling looked pretty enough but didn’t provide sufficient cones to bother processing this year. We’re also lucky enough to have plenty of hedgrow hops in the local area – including Boadicea and Sarah, probably – which I’ve also noticed surfacing recently.

Anyway, plenty more on hop growth as things progress, but for now, here are photos of the three plants’ first sighting above ground!

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A short while ago I wrote a post documenting our efforts at growing hops in the Boxshed back garden, and promised an update detailing our amateurish methods of harvesting, processing and storing our yield. There’s nothing all that complex to share really, but there are a few photos you might find interesting, and if you have any inclination at all to plant a few hop varieties this winter or spring, at least you’ll be able to see that harvests, however modest, are at least possible in your first year.

We first started getting edgey about our hops around mid-September. The cones had been bright springy and green for a few weeks and were busy putting on bulk and length. Picking a cone at random and peeling back the leaves nearest the cone stem revealed plenty of crocus yellow powder. This lupulin is the resinous pollen-like stuff that imbibes hops with their bittering and aromatic qualities. Throughout the harvesting and drying process its important to realise that too much rough treatment of the cones will mechanically remove much of this lupulin, which obviously isn’t desirable.

Pinpointing the perfect time to pick your hops isn’t always easy, but here are a few general rules: wait until the cones lose their springiness and become slightly papery; harvest before or immediately when any browning starts to occur; choose a nice dry day, preferable following a dry period of days.

Sadly it began raining constantly in our part of the world just when hops looked ready to pick. We waited a couple of days to see if things brightened up, but when the wild hops nearby began going brown we knew we couldn’t wait any longer for our own plants, and so braved the drizzle and picked them wet. Picking hops takes a lot longer than you might imagine and certainly isn’t a quick job. We began by using scissors and precision, but were very soon grabbing and ripping cones off the bines with care but also speed. The interwoven bines hide a good many cones and an ever-useful fermenting bucket can quickly fill up. By the time we had stripped the WGV plant we had managed to get over a kilo, or 15L or so, of great looking green hop cones, ready for drying. The Fuggles, harvested a few days later, produced slightly less, but still around a kilo. By the time we had stripped our own crop, the enormous mass of wild hedgerow hops I had been watching all summer were perishing, and the rain had showed no signs of relenting.

The next stage is of course drying. Leave wet or fresh hops lying around too long off the bine – especially in plastic containers – and mould will inevitably set in. To preserve green hops as efficiently as possible, it is essential to dry ’em and freeze ’em. Traditionally and commercially, hop harvests are taken to purpose-built oast houses to be dried and processed. This is what Wikipedia has to say about oast houses:

“They are farm buildings used for drying hops in preparation for the brewing process. They consist of two or three storeys on which the hops were spread out to be dried by hot air from a wood or charcoal-fired kiln at the bottom. The drying floors were thin and perforated to permit the heat to pass through and it escaped through a cowl in the roof which turned with the wind. The freshly picked hops from the fields were raked in to dry and then raked out to cool before being bagged up and sent to the brewery.”

Home brew aficionados such as Dave Line or Randy Mosher can offer guidance for creating a mini-oast out of a tea-chest, wire mesh and perhaps a hair dryer or two. You could even invest in a tiered fruit dehydrator. But we decided to use newspaper pockets and some good old-fashioned airing in the loft. Large flat pillow shaped pockets with sides that contacted the maximum possible number of cones may have worked better, but we simply used cone shaped packages which we then filled loosely with hops and stacked in an airing cupboard. After a few days we took all of these up to the loft and lay out all the semi-dry hops evenly on porous cardboard box sheets where they could benefit from the heat of the house below and some decent airing.

At this point, there’s a chance you might start to feel like a bit of a drugs baron. Hops are members of the cannabis family, and after a harvest your home will ooze hoppiness. After a week’s further drying both our hop crops had reduced in weight by around a quarter to a fifth, but still three-quarter filled an FV bucket each. For storage it is ideal to press the hops as compact as possible and then keep them cool. Oast houses use a press to cram and stitch huge volumes of dried hops into large hop pockets, or sacks. Home or craft brewers tend to favour vacuum packing. For such a small harvest we simply bought some extra strong self sealing bags and meticulously rammed them full to bursting with our hops. We managed to press each bucket of hops into two plastic bags with some difficulty, with each of the resulting four bags weighing in at…  …just 110g a piece!

A lot of effort for less than half a kilo of dried hops you might think, but they are serving us a few brews with enormous satisfaction. We’ve already made a mild with the Fuggles and a stout with the WGV, and the remaining hops are wonderfully fresh and green in the freezer. Also of course, this year was somewhat of a bonus year, as we didn’t really expect a harvest until Autumn 2009.

Hop growing is well and truly over for another season. The ugly stripped bines have been ripped down, cut off at ground level and composted. The stem stumps have been buried in organic compost for the winter, and we don’t expect to see buds emerging until the warmth of Spring. As soon as we do, we’ll be sure to post photos.

 

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One of the most satisfying parts of our last couple of brewdays has been the chance to use our own homegrown hops. We don’t have a large garden outside the Boxshed by any means, but we do have sufficient fencing to train a few hops, which although not particularly disease resistant, can thrive in the smallest space as long as appropriate varieties are chosen for the local climate.

We’re rather lucky in East Anglia. Although we experience a fair amount of high winds and our share of rainstorms all year round, we also have short hard winters and mild weather generally. The soil is rich and easy going, and there are wild hops in the hedgerows and numerous local intensive and organic hop farms. Any of the popular UK varieties traditionally associated with the fields of Kent, East Anglia and the home counties, as well as a few now linked with Eastern Europe and even the cooler parts of North America, will happily grow up some trellis, wire or guttering in any village garden in most regions of the UK.

We have three main sources of hops for brewing. Online brew shops selling whole flower, plug or pellet hops from as far afield as California or New Zealand; local hedgerows that come alive in early autumn with large harvests of Susan and Boadicea; and our own three (currently) varieties – Fuggles, WGV and Bramling Cross – planted in Spring 2008.

You can buy your own hops online or at a nearby nursery or farm in the form of rhyzomes. These are shoot sending plant stems that are cut from more mature plants and which lay dormant underground in the hard winter before growing root networks and then flourishing above ground from around March until harvest time in late September. Traditionally the first year of hop growth witnesses more action below ground than above, with extensive root systems created at the expense of impressive flower yields. We were rather fortunate in our first year, and did at least manage to take around a kilo of both Fuggles and WGV wet, resulting in a nice sample harvest of 200g+ of each dried and frozen. The Bramling Cross wasn’t so impressive, and although it looked very nice, we didn’t bother harvesting its flowers this year.

If you fancy trying your hand at hop growing, it really isn’t very testing and the plants are very attractive and rewarding to take care of. It’s no exaggeration to say that you can actually watch the climbing stems grow at the height of summer. I found for example, that I could take note of how far a creeper had progressed before mowing the lawn and doing a few odd jobs in the garden, then revisit it a few hours later and see it an inch or so further along the fence. Anyway, we are no experts, so if we can get a crop to brew with so can you – here’s how we did it.

First we bought three hop plants from a local nursery. This is best done after the last frost and up until late Spring. They cost just a few pounds each, but any friend with established plants ought to be more than happy to cut you off a clump of trailing shoots in the spring, or you could always dig up a chunk from a hedgerow. Wild hop spotting is best done from early summer onwards by bike, when the distinctive green/purple bud-tipped shoots are heading for the sun. The next stage is to dig a minimum two foot square hole for each, lined with John Innes No3 compost or similar. Drop in a plant or rhyzome, cover with soil, and cap with a few inches of organic compost or manure and water in with tomato feed solution or your favourite organic plant food. The only care the plants need from that point on is plenty of water every dry day and feed once a week if you’re feeling generous.

Although they’re easy to care for, hop plants do need training, especially if you are growing them horizontally. Left alone, they produce multiple shoots which all head for the sky, binding themselves to the nearest vertical surface and surging up to 40ft without thought of stopping. If, like me, you don’t have the space or energy to purpose build telescopic or pivoting hop frames, I recommend investing in a small piece of trellis, spools of heavy duty coated garden wire and scoops of galvanised eyelet screws to create runs at least two or three fence panels long in parallel lines down your borders. Once your plants have broken the surface and grown around four feet in height, choose around three of the more promising looking creepers, twirl them around some upright trellis, then cut back any remaining stems. This will ensure that growth is concentrated and prevents the plants getting wayward and out of hand. As the season progresses, you’ll find that twiddling and knitting your hop creepers along your wire frames becomes a daily task. This is actually quite fun, and of course ensures you notice any problems, such as powdery mildew, which may need treatment from time to time.

By the end of summer, creepers suddenly stop growing at some predetermined but impressive length. By now each plant resembles a bush, and fluffy buds pop out all over – seemingly overnight. These are the beginnings of the all important hop flowers, and they will continue to grow until they become large fragrant bright green hop cones by early Autumn.

Another day we’ll try and remember to talk about amateur methods of harvesting, processing and storing hops, but for now, here are the few photos of our own hops and some local hedgerow hops we took over the summer.

 

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