With the continued increase in interest of homebrewing it is no wonder that more people are getting involved in growing their own hops. For a homebrewer, this is a relatively easy step towards sustainable homebrewing, and it gets you just one step closer to your beer. Cultivation of the humulus plant is relatively easy, and compared to growing and malting your own barley, it's not even in the same ballpark! Even for extract brewers, this can be a fun way to put a personal touch on your own beers.
Where to Start
To grow hops, the first thing you need are hop rhizomes, which are used to grow new plants. These are the easiest to obtain in spring, and there are many suppliers online that sell them as well as local nurseries.
Because hops directly affect the flavor of beer, it is important to research what type of hops you are looking for and the different impacts that hops can have on your beer. Ideally you want the hops you choose to match the type of beer you plan to create. Not all types of hops do well in certain types of weather, and growing hops of foreign origin in a local climate can absolutely change their character!
The area where you plant the hops needs three key things. First, there should be a considerable amount of sun, around six to eight hours each day. Second, there should be a large amount of vertical space. This is because hops can grow high, and you will need to use something to prop them up, like a trellis. Third, you need a spot where the soil drains well.
Before planting the hops, you need to make the area ready. This involves breaking the soil until it is entirely loose and making sure that there is nothing that shouldn’t be there, like stones, weeds or sticks. If possible, you should also make use of fertilizer to help support the growth of the hops. As a guideline, both the fertilization and the broken soil should go down to around a foot deep.
Planting the Hops
Use your hands to create mounds, approximately three feet away from one another. There should be one mound per rhizome. The rhizomes should be planted within these mounds at a depth of approximately four inches straight down.
Once the rhizomes have been planted, the soil should be loosely packed into the hole. This soil should be kept consistently damp until the sprouts from the rhizomes can be seen through the soil. It is also beneficial to use a cover like mulch or straw to prevent weed growth.
Caring for Hops
One of the key components of growing hops is using a trellis, as they will produce bines (not vines) that cannot support themselves. As these bines begin to emerge they will need to be wrapped around the trellis each day for a few days until they follow the trellis on their own. In general, you should expect around five bines per rhizome, although there will be some variation.
As the plants grow, the bottom leaves should be removed (up to around four feet) to protect the bines.
After this, the plants can be cared for in much the same way that other plants are, including weeding the soil around them and watering them on a daily basis (be careful not to drench the soil).
If you planted the rhizomes in the spring, then the hops should be ready to harvest towards the end of summer. Drying is not that hard, but there are some common errors that can damage your hops! The number 1 mistake new hop growers make is to dry their hops in the sun. You should keep them outside in the heat for about 2 weeks, but leaving them in direct sunlight could cause serious damage to them. Once dry, you can freeze them in bags.
When it comes to growing hops, don’t be disappointed if your first harvest is low. This is to be expected, but crops in later years tend to do much better. Some brewers have found that their crops in the third year were so high that they didn’t know what to do with them.
Further Reading About Hop Cultivation
If you are serious about starting to grow your own hops, I suggest you check out the Homebrew Forum's Hop Growing section, and Beersmith, Keystone, Morebeer, & Northern Brewer have a bit of info worth reading up on as well. These are just primers, and give very generic (and brief) information about growing hops. I guess growing hops in your back yard can't be that complicated, because there doesn't seem to be much literature on it.
Many of the books on Amazon are actually combined with other homebrewing information like beginners guides to homebrewing, or general “homebewers garden” information that might not be of use to an advanced brewer or someone with basic gardening skills. For someone looking more into the serious side of hop cultivation, you might want to start with Hops From R. A. Neve and/or Compedium of Hops Diseases and Pests. The former is a bit more broad is scope, and the latter, though specifically about diseases and pests, also includes some information about cultivation.