That moment when you realize you’ve been doing it all wrong

Hops in 2013

I’ve been growing my own hops for just over 4 years now, and while my last few harvests were pretty good, they were not even close to what other home hop farmers achieve. To try and figure out where I’ve gone wrong I’ve read almost every guide, watched nearly every youtube video, and listened to a mass of podcasts…so far to no avail.

My problems are pretty straight forward – the growth I get is somewhat weak and thin, I don’t get a lot of sidearms (which is where hops form), my cones form too early and tend to dry out by early August.

I’ll admit that I’ve somewhat given up hope on finding a solution to my hop-growing woes, but last week James over at Basic Brewing released a podcast in which he interviews a hop farmer – James Altwies of Gorst Valley Hops. As I listened to the podcast I came to realize that my poor yields are likely due to one simple factor – I was doing every last thing wrong.

So what is the magical fix…well short of firing myself that is? There isn’t any one thing, but rather several, and the first steps need to start in the next few weeks. As always, the meat is below the fold.

1) Don’t let any bines grow until late April. I had read in “For the Love of Hops” that you should cut back the “first mangy growth”, so I always cut back the first two or three bines that appeared, and begun training the next wave of bines up my trellis. That second wave always appeared in mid-April, meaning I had hops half way up my trellis by May 1. Turns out that was completely wrong – that “first mangy growth” is anything upto the end of April; apparently you don’t want trainable bines (1m/3′ long) until mid-May, meaning anything that sprouts up until the end of April needs to be trimmed back. The early bines I was training apparently are known for having few and widely separate sidearms and anemic growth. The exact “stop trimming bines back” date will vary with latitude, but luckily for me I’m at the same latitude as James Altweis, so I can use his advice without modification.

First issue identified – and I trimmed back my first bine yesterday.

2) Train at least 3 bines per wire, more for less aggressive breeds. Last year I thought I was a rebel training 3 bines per wire (up from 2/wire); but based on the discussion in the podcast it sounds like that’s enough for only a small number of aggressive breeds. Both my Cascades and Goldings need more bines per wire. So this year I’m going to train 4 on the Cascade (which historically are the most aggressive) and 5 for the Goldings. You want as many as you can train without the bines self-shading themselves.

Second issue identified – and heavier twine has been purchased for the trellis this year.

3) Don’t fertilize until the bines have really begun climbing the trellis…and stop the second you see the first hop flower. Early on, the plant draws nutrients from its rhizomes, so fertilizer is wasted if used too early (and you risk burning the plant). During flowering fertilizer can throw off hop flower chemistry, so you need to stop fertilizer as soon as the burs appear. At least I used the right kind of fertilizer (i.e. any home-gardener style liquid fertilizer) at the right intervals (once weekly), but I was starting way to early, and carrying on far too long into the season.

Third issue identified – no need to replace anything, but I do need to keep a closer eye on when I start and when I finish applying fertilizer.

4) Trim back any bines which form after training. I tended to be lazy on this front, figuring a little bit of bushiness around the base wouldn’t hurt. Turns out I was wrong, and energy goes into those bines rather than into the hop flowers.

Fourth issue identified – again, no need to replace anything, I just need to be a little less lazy.

That is is for issues that I have, but there is lots of excellent information on other hop issues – plant placement, dealing with pests, why you don’t want to run hops horizontally, and other useful tidbits for the home hop grower.

The podcast link again, because its worth a listen.

5 thoughts on “That moment when you realize you’ve been doing it all wrong

  • April 14, 2016 at 6:45 pm
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    I'm in Canada, but I don't have any rhizomes at this time as I've already cut/distributed what I safely can for the year.

    There usually is an annual exchange on the Canadian Homebrewers Forum (www.canadianhomebrewers.com), plus some mail-order suppliers can provide rhizomes as well.

    Reply
  • April 14, 2016 at 1:09 pm
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    Bryan, would you ship those Rhizomes up to Ohio? and my buddy will bring them the rest of the way to Canada for me. I'll give them a good home.

    Reply
  • April 1, 2016 at 5:39 pm
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    That really was one of the best hop growing podcasts. I guess I shouldn't be so shocked at the amount of bad information out there, even in recent books on growing hops.

    Reply
  • March 24, 2016 at 12:23 pm
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    I find the picking part rather cathartic. I cut down a bine, drag it onto the deck, and pick off the hops while listening to some good tunes and enjoying a pint. Its a nice way to unwind after a day at work. I don't mind a wet-hop ale (so long as you don't over do it; I've had a few that tasted like grass), but I dry most of mine for use over the winter.

    Reply
  • March 24, 2016 at 3:22 am
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    I've been growing 4 hop bines successfully for 5 years. Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, Chinook.
    Top producers: Chinook, cascade, columbus, centennial
    I'm in southeast PA.
    After a large harvest the last few years, I've realized I just don't like wet hop beers that much.
    It is also a good 1.5 hour to pick each bine, just too much work.
    I'm ripping them up this year.

    Reply

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