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Hopping in the Backyard: Grow Your Own Small-Scale Specialty Hops Crop

Hops jelly

The decision for us to grow hops on our farm is probably not what you think. It actually came about because of what we wanted our farm to stand for. That was Tradition and Heritage of crops — we are native to the mountains of Western North Carolina and want to be teachers as well as farmers.

I found copies of Agricultural Census for our families and counties and hops was listed as one of the crops!

Some refer to the growing of hops as a new idea, even suggesting it as a new "Specialty Crop". Well, to some it may be new, but for those of us native to this area, we know differently. Some people who are not "in the know" question the suitability of growing hops. While others say that North Carolina has the right growing climate to produce hops in abundance.

I remember hearing stories of the "good ole boys" making homebrew, and I also remember such sayings as, "that's growing as thick as hops". So, what happened? Why did hops just disappear and the memory with it?

Well, I did some research and found out it was pretty much the same as what happened to the tobacco crops of the 1970s: Mold and mildew wiped out crops, making it a financially unstable crop. One good thing is that there has been a lot of research of late into the growing and harvesting of the crop. We now know that the plants need a lot of breathing space.

Hops have not been recognized for their full potential! I often ask people, "do you know what hops are?" I always get the same response, "it's what people use to make beer, isn't it?" Well, yes, but they are much more than that.

Simple and Small-Scale Hops Growing

With any new venture or project, we always suggest going small until you see where the project is going to take you. If there are a lot of environmental issues or other obstacles present, then learn how to deal with those before going bigger, otherwise you can run into a lot of work, money and heartache! Hops, for the most part, is a wonderful plant to grow — it is prolific!!

Starting with one plant: You can have a bounty of plants for your next season just from one plant. Plants can be planted in the fall if lightly mulched or temps don't stay at freezing for too long during the winter. Most people plant and/or divide their rhizomes in the early Spring — depending on the temps in the Spring. You can usually start planting in March but, watch the temps — if they fall too low and you have young growth, cover lightly. Make sure that if you cover your plants when temp gets high or sun is strong on the plant, uncover the plant or it can be killed from heat.

Hops have rhizomes. Not only do they "run" above ground, they "run" below ground. This is good when it comes to getting "new" plants from your one plant. In the early Spring when ground temps are warm enough (60 degrees should be OK), you can start digging up some of the rhizomes that have developed from last season's growth.

When digging, you can see shoots that are starting on the rhizomes, almost like "eyes" on potatoes. You can cut pieces that have at least three shoots, or "eyes" — these pieces may be as small as an inch. You can take the pieces you collect and immediately set them out wherever you've chosen for your "hops" spot, or you can pot these pieces in topsoil, soil from your garden, or wooded areas — they are not too choosy about their dirt. You just need to make sure they do not dry out— keep watered when slightly dry.

You can also take "cuttings" from the vines and put them in water and usually within 5-7 days, you can see fibrous roots. When roots are established, these can be set out or potted.

Hops do need some type of "vining" system, because in order to produce well and resist some of the diseases that affect the hops (such as the mold and mildew), they need to be aerial. Simple trellising using existing an trellis built for beans or tomatoes works well for this. You can leave them in containers and allow the plant to vine into trees, other standing structures, or a "May Pole" type of construction.

Trellised hops

Growing: The plants do this fine on their own!! If too heavy with foliage and there are hot rainy days, the plants may develop mildew or other types of fungus. Try to make sure they get plenty of air. One of the things that can be done, similar to what we do with tomato plants, is cut off the bottom leaves to allow breathing. Also water/rain doesn’t splash up on leaves.

The plant is hairy and they "prick", so be careful and use gloves when working with this plant, especially if you have sensitive skin! This is the plants way to vine and "hold on".

Pests: These plants are notorious for saddleback and pack-saddle caterpillars — these do sting and can cause severe allergic reactions. These little creatures will often hide on the underside of the leaves. The hops will usually have aphids as well. We do not treat for disease or insects, because we are a no chemical farm!

Flowers/Fruit: You will see small "flowers" on the young plant, and then that will develop into the cone-shaped fruit that you are waiting for! When the cone starts to feel dry and open a little so you can see the yellow inulin, it is time to harvest the hops.

Harvesting: Each hops will mature at different times, so make sure your hops are "papery" (dry). If they feel damp or wet, they are too young. When harvesting, you can use immediately. Some call this "wet" or "green" hops. If they are dry completely, you can package for sale or later use. Make sure they do not get damp or too hot, or they can develop mold.

Fresh hops

To dry: You can use a dehydrator on the same level as you use for herbs (100/110 degrees Fahrenheit). The hops will become "crumbly" when rubbed after they are dry enough. This is different times depending on dehydrator, 2 or 3 hours.

You can sun/air dry, but you must make sure they are completely dry when taking up — don't let the evening dew or rain hit them. You can use old screens, but make sure you sanitize before using them. (I prefer not to go this route in case of leaching from the metal of the screen).

You can also use a "warm" oven like you would for drying herbs, no hotter than 110 (preferably 100 degrees) until dry.

Packaging: I prefer brown bags with closure or biodegradable sealed bags. Keep out of direct sunlight — the same as you would treat your herbs.

Note: Directly after harvesting, I put a cupful of hops at a time in a fine sieve or strainer and tap gently to try to remove any aphids that wanted to hitch a ride!

Uses for Hops are Many

In bygone days, women would use hops to make "yeast" cakes. Of course, this didn't resemble our store-bought yeast of today, but it was better than nothing!

Making simple hops yeast: Place hops in a container (usually a handful is suggested for these old recipes). Pour water over them until they are 2/3 covered. Bring to a boil, and let boil 2 to 3 minutes — enough to draw out the "essence" of the hops. Drain off liquid and while it is still hot, stir into the liquid cornmeal enough to thicken. Then, spread this mixture on a cloth or board and let dry. Note: Don't let this mixture mold! Finally, cut into "cakes" and used when baking.

You can make a simple homemade beer to use in bread baking or use it for brining your homemade cheeses.

Simple Hops Beer

Ingredients:

• 2 ounces of hops
• 1 pound sugar
• 4 quarts cold water

Directions:

1. Steep 2 ounces hops in 2 quarts hot water for 15 minutes.

2. Then strain and dissolve 1 pound of sugar in liquid.

3. Add 4 quarts cold water to this.

4. Allow to stand for 12 hours in a warm place and it should be ready to bottle.

I just make enough at a time to be used as I need it.

Hops brined cheese

Medicinal uses: Hops can be used as a sleep aid in an infusion or tea. This is also considered a good remedy for arthritis. This also makes use of the leaves of the hops plant so that nothing is wasted. It’s also being looked into for treatment of diabetes and for a type of “silage” feed for animals. The “binds,” or vines, can be used for making baskets — I suggest using gloves!

We have developed our own Hops Jelly. Hops are a great anti-bacterial, so we incorporate the hops infusion and put the plant into our soaps.

Soap made with hops

So, the uses are as endless as your creativity. What are you waiting for? Get "Hopping"!

Susan Tipton-Fox uses continues the farming and preserving practices that had been passed down to her by her family. She presents on-farm workshops in Yancey County, North Carolina, and growing her on-farm agritourism by promoting "workshop stays" on the farm (extending the farm experience). Find Susan on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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