It’s the female flower that is most sought. Its bitterness, flavor, and aroma have been used by brewers for years as a natural preservative.
“The hop itself has a lot of antimicrobial activity, so before there was refrigeration, hops were used in beer to keep it from spoiling,” said Steve Miller, executive director at the Northeast Hop Alliance.
But the perennial plant has more uses than just beer-making and it turns out growing them at home isn’t too hard if you’re willing to put in the work.
“It’s a set-it-and-forget-it at different times during the process,” said Peter Barraud, co-owner and head brewer of North Fork Brewing Company. “But if you’re into gardening, and take pride in it, there’s time in season to be dedicated to it.”
Barraud and business partner Ian Van Bourgondien certainly do take pride in it. Before opening their brewery, the previous home brewers took over a family farm with one acre of hops to learn about the vital ingredient that goes into their beer.
“Everything starts with the ingredients,” Van Bourgondien said. “These things can grow like weeds, if left unchecked. And if you give them the right conditions and you treat them right, then you can get a very healthy and beautiful plant that’s going to make some awesome hops.”
John Condzella of Condzella’s Farm in Wading River started growing two acres of the plant in 2010 when he was looking for something a bit different to grow. As a lover of craft beer, hops were a natural choice.
It’s a very fun plant to grow, because they grow very fast. In the month of June or July, I’d say that you can even watch them grow up to a foot a day.John Condzella, Condzella’s Farm
But for the gardener not looking to brew their own beer, hops have other purposes.
“I’ve seen people plant a bunch and then kind of shape them over their deck to make like a summer shade,” Condzella said. If you don’t have a deck, any corner of a structure will work.
“Some people can tie off to the gutter of their house,” Barraud said. “Some people tie off to the point on a shed.” And believe it or not, the plant can be cooked and eaten.
“When the tops shoot up, a lot of people will cut them and sautée them like asparagus,” Barraud added. “You can also pickle them.”
And they have medicinal uses.
“They call it like a hot pillow,” Condzella said. “It’s like a sachet [of hops] that you would put underneath your pillow to help you fall asleep.” Teas made from hops are also a popular remedy for sleep and upset stomachs.
Growing hops is quite similar to wrangling a wild animal. The weak plants are cut away to give the chosen ones the most energy to grow and they must be trained to grow up the wire. The work starts in March when they poke their heads out of the ground.
“Usually in April, we’ll hang the strings off the trellis that the hops will grow up,” Condzella said. “In late April and May, we’re training the hops, selecting a few shoots that will grow the full length of the trellis.” If you’ve ever driven by a hop farm, you can see they grow vertically, towards the sun.
The shorter days that follow the summer solstice tell the plants it’s time to start flowering.
“In late August, we are constantly monitoring the crop to start to determine the harvest date,” Condzella said. Each variety of hop can have a different optimal picking window.
“And then we pick them by cutting down the whole bine,” he said. No, not a vine — a bine with a B. The difference between the two is actually why it makes it near impossible to pick the hops by hand. A vine has tendrils or appendages that attach themselves to whatever they’re growing on, while bines have stiff hairs which give them a painful prickliness.
Both Condzella and the owners of North Fork Brewing Company use a machine that Condzella imported from Germany to help with the harvest. After cutting down the bines, they run them through the machine, separating the hop cones, or flowers, from the rest of the plant. Then they either go straight to a brewery to make a special wet-hopped beer, or they are sent off to a facility to get dried and pelletized for longer storage.
To grow your own, the hops experts of the North Fork say you most importantly need two things: support and sun.
“They will spread in the ground depending on the variety,” Miller said. “Once they’re well established, they send runners out, so you don’t want to put them right in the middle of a perennial garden unless you’re willing to maintain them.”
It’s important to have some kind of structure for the hops to grow around, whether that is a wire, gutter, or corner of the house.
“They follow the movement as they rotate around the lines,” Van Bour- gondien said. “It really is crazy to see where they start and where they end.”
“The best location is a southerly facing location,” Barraud added. “Because you’re getting a lot more of the sun.”