Hop Chronicles

Christopher L. Warner

I was conducting an interview with a local brewer and we moved onto the topic of locally-grown hops.  While the brewer was certainly interested in using locally grown hops, the supply just isn’t readily available, or at least there is a perception as such.  I did some research, and there are indeed several, but not many, Ohio-based hop farms (go to our website, www.HometownCBN.com, for a hop farm map), so I can understand where the brewer is coming from. 
Hops are a fascinating plant with documented usage dating back to Roman times.  Indeed, today’s perception is that hops are strictly useable for brewing beer.  But, there are many agricultural, industrial, and medical applications hop plants and derivatives are being researched.  Perhaps I’ll address some of these other uses in later blog postings.

I earned my Bachelor of Science (BS) in Agricultural Engineering Technology from the University of DelawareGO BLUE HENS! (if we run into each other at a local taproom, ask me about the acre plot I had to cultivate on the university farm as part of my senior lab – I can also pass along why the Team up North and Delaware have similar football helmets…)  I enjoyed my undergraduate studies, but other paths took me away from an agricultural profession (to be honest, “enjoyed” is an understatement…)  That was some years ago, but my conversation with the brewer piqued my interest and I looked into the feasibility of growing hops in the backyard. 

Now, rest assured, I’m not suggesting I quit my day job (yet) ala Field of Dreams, but a bench-scale study growing hops a few feet outside my back door is certainly intriguing.  So, I am undertaking such a study chronicling my findings within this blog.  Unfortunately, I did not think of adding this topic to Beer Goggles until after I ordered, received, and opened my first set of plants, so I don’t have many photos to embed from those early happenings.  Nonetheless, I will from here on out…
Chinook Hops from the Nursery Sitting on Our West-Facing Kitchen Window
Crystal Hops from the Nursery Sitting on Our West-Facing Kitchen Window
First Things First

Do hops even grow in Ohio?  Short answer is – yes.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, there are several Ohio-based hop farms and many surrounding the Great Lakes Region.   So, to start I had to perform a feasibility study.  I first started by researching online resources provided by The Ohio State University agricultural extension website, but there was little more than a couple trade publications.  Few other Ohio-specific resources could be found, so I moved on the Great Lakes Region.
Growing Conditions

The portion of the hop plant (Humulus Lupulus) used in the craft beer brewing process are the flowers (i.e. “cones”).  The cones grow on the vine-like portion of the plant, referred to as “bines.”    From various sources, hops – like other flowering plants – thrive in certain climatic conditions.  Now, before comments are posted, I understand there are exceptions to everything and I am not looking to satisfy hypotheticals.  Rather, I am looking to define my realm of possibility.  So, generally speaking:

Long Summer Days

Cold Temperatures in Winter

Optimum Latitude between 35o and 55o

Well drained soils

Adequate rainfall

Soil pH range of 5.0 – 7.0

a.       Ohio sits between roughly 38.5oN and 41.5oN, with Central Ohio sitting at roughly 40.0oN.
b.       Native soils may be augmented in order to establish optimum soil characteristics.
c.       Less than sufficient rainfall may be augmented through irrigation.

So it appears, at least theoretically, Ohio in general offers all the conditions necessary to grow hops.  But, what varieties?

How Much Space is Needed?
The amount of yard space necessary to dedicate to hop plants is, of course, dependent on the number of plants I would like to grow and the number of different varieties.  In general, same-variety plants may be planted approximately three (3) feet apart.  This amount of spacing provides enough room for plant growth and for individual bines (“branches”) to establish.  Hops are fast growers, potentially adding six (6) to twelve (12) inches of new growth per day reaching as much as 30 feet in total growth.  Different hop varieties should be planted a minimum five (5) feet apart so roots do not intertwine or compete with other hop varieties.

Luckily, we have two abandoned raised beds from failed attempts at growing zucchini and tomatoes, so our plan is to rehab those beds for growing hops.  Each bed measures four (4) feet by eight (8) feet, separated by a one (1) foot wide path. 

A number of different hop varieties are being cultivated for private use, commercial production, or research.  These varieties include, in part: Cascade, Chinook, Chrystal, Nugget, Willamette, Columbus, Sterling, Centennial, Galena, Mt. Hood, Hallertauer, and Spalter.  Hop nurseries in the Great Lakes Regions continually test varieties for viability within the region.  As for this backyard experiment, we went with three (3) each Chinook and three (3) each Crystal. 

Preparation and Planting
I turned under each raised bed, incorporating one (1) bale of peat moss per bed, two (2) 2-ft3 bags organic peat, and one cup organic 5-3-3 fertilizer.  I was able to get down about 8-12 incches, so there is a good foundation for the hops to take off.

Raised Beds Prepped with Wire Trellises in Place
Stephanie and I then ran stringers.  We used the existing chicken wire fencing as the base, using steel wire to run up the sides and across the top forming a network of trellises.  From each plant to the wire runners, we used cotton twine. 

The hop plugs we received from the nursery sat in our west-facing kitchen window until it was warm enough for planting.  The plugs sat in the window about three weeks and as you can see in the picture below, grew about two feet in that short time.  Each hole was dug twice as big as the plug.  The amended soil was then amended a bit more adding some organic material.  The nursery instructions stated to plant the plugs slightly risen above the ground line in order to promote drainage away from the tops of each plant.  Apparently, pooling water not only leads to root rot, but also invites mold, mildew, and pest such as spider mites.

Plants and Holes Ready for Planting

Stringers in Place Leading to Trellises
So, that's about it for now.  Time for mother nature to do her magic.  Over the next couple of months, the root bases will begin to establish.  Planting instructions from the nursery advised against using starter fertilizer, so we are going with just the prepped beds and water for now.  We'll keep a close eye for potential parasites and disease.  In future blogs, we'll offer up some observations as the new plantings take root and begin spreading.

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