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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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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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