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How and When to Harvest Hops

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Summer is on the wane. The weather is starting to cool. That means it’s almost hop harvesting time, and that means a lot of new hop growers are probably starting to see the cones filling up their bines and are wondering, “What do I do now?” Don’t worry, we have your back. We think that growing hops is a fantastic side hobby to homebrewing, so much so that some of us squeeze hop plants into every corner of our yard. Heck, gardening in general is a great complement to homebrewing, as you can grow your own adjuncts for brewing. Growing your own hops entails learning a bunch of non-brewing related skills, of course, which means yet another list of things to learn. Thankfully, the list is pretty small, especially when it comes harvest time. Hop harvesting is easy and rewarding. Trust us, you’ll have it mastered in about as long as it takes to read this article. Here’s how you do it:

When to Harvest Your Hops

One of the first things new growers have to figure out once the Summer draws to a close is if their hops are ready to harvest. Your bines can look full, bountiful, and pregnant with cones, but harvest too early and you’re going to be missing out on much of the pungent, bitter goodness these plants have to offer. It’s a common mistake, so remember that it’s better for them to stay on the bine a little too long than to be harvested early. Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to tell when your hop cones are ready. Be prepared to start checking around mid-to-late August through mid-to-late September, depending on your region, though in unusual cases you may have a plant that is begging for harvesting as early as July. I’m speaking from experience! Here’s how to tell if your cones are ready: Squeeze the hop cones. Do they feel papery, light and dry? Do they spring back to their shape right away? Then the cones are ready. If they still feel “green” and stay compressed for a moment when you squeeze them, it’s too soon for harvesting. Smell them. Roll them around in your hands. Do they smell pungent, like a mix of grass and pine and citrus and onion? Do they release a sticky yellow powder? If the answer is yes, you are ready to harvest. If not, wait. It’s that simple. First year harvests will yield very little, so don’t be disappointed if your plants are struggling to give you a bountiful harvest. You may only get a few handfuls your first season. Second year harvests will be fuller, and by the third year you’ll probably be wondering what to do with all those hops! You can get a couple of pounds per plant in good years.

How to Harvest Your Hops

Harvesting the hop cones is relatively easy, albeit a bit tedious. If you have only one plant, you can handle the job solo. If you have more than one or two, you might want to grab a six-pack and ask a friend to come help, because it’s going to take you an afternoon. Here’s what you do: First, be sure to wear gloves and long sleeves. Hops bines are abrasive. You’ll scratch yourself up without even realizing it. They can also cause flare ups with those suffering from some forms of dermatitis. Next, either pull down your bines from your lines or trellis (if they are first year plants) or chop them down about three feet from the ground (second year and beyond). With first year plants, letting them lay down after you harvest allows them to strengthen their roots going into winter. After that, it’s not necessary. Hop roots spread far, wide, and fast. NOTE: If it’s an early harvest and your summers last deep into September, consider the former. You can sometimes get a second harvest out of your plants. Now pick them by hand, one-by-one, tossing them into a basket or brown paper bag. No, it isn’t any more complicated than that. Yes, it’s tedious. If these are mature plants (years 3+), feel free to leave tiny cones on the bine. If you only lowered your bine instead of chopping it off, string it back up when you’re done. By year three and beyond, you can sometimes get another small harvest 2-4 weeks after the first. Congratulations, you’re done harvesting! That was the easy part. Now comes drying and packaging them.

How to Dry Your Homegrown Hops

Before you stuff your freshly-picked hops into freezer bags and put them away for use in upcoming brews, wait! Slow down! If not prepped and stored properly, you’re going to have a nasty surprise when you finally use them. Improperly dried hops will rot in storage, getting “green,” rancid and unusable. You could throw them directly into a brew, of course, to make a wet-hopped beer. They are super tasty when they are fresh. If that’s your plan remember to use fresh hops at four to six times the rate you would dry hop pellets, i.e. for every ounce of hop pellets you’d use, use four to six ounces of fresh whole cones. This is because fresh, undried hops are mostly water. On the other hand, properly prepped and dried whole cone hops are close to a 1:1 usage rate when compared with pellets. The basic rule of thumb is to use 10% more whole cones by weight than you would pellets. The nice thing about dried and stored hops is that you don’t have to rush to use them. You can wait for the perfect recipe (more on that later). But we digress. If you plan to store your hops for later use, you’re going to need to dry them first. There are two methods you can use.

Method 1: Air Drying

Spread your hops out onto a screen or other material that allows good air flow (air filter material, etc.). If you have neither, try a shallow cardboard box or sheet of cardboard with holes punched throughout. Place them in a warm, dry location that does not get a lot of light. The location should also get good airflow. If you set them by a window for airflow, consider covering them with black landscape fabric to block the sunlight (and stir them up a bit from time to time). If your location does not get good airflow, set a small fan nearby to gently blow over them. Let them sit for two to three days, or until dry. You’ll know they are ready when the central stem is brittle enough to easily break in half and the lupulin (yellow powder) easily falls away from the leaves.

Method 2: The Oven

Lay your hops out on a pan or baking sheet. Set your oven to between 100 and 140 degree F. Do not allow it to exceed 140! Leave the oven door open and let them sit. The process could take a few hours. Check your hops every twenty minutes. When they meet the criteria noted above - the central stem is brittle enough to easily break in half and the lupulin (yellow powder) easily falls away from the leaves – they are ready. You may need to do this in a series of separate batches, since you don’t want your pile to be too deep. A thin layer is best for even drying. Alternatively, if you have a food dehydrator you can use that. This is the easiest solution of all, but obviously there is an additional cost involved. Important Note: Your freshly picked cones may be full of critters, so keep that in mind when you set up your drying location. As they dry, you’ll have an exodus of tiny aphids, spiders, and other crawlies. Because of this, I tend to do the first 24 hours of drying outdoors or in a shed before moving them inside. The bugs will clear out that first day, most within the first 8 hours. If you want to avoid this altogether, garden specialty shops and online stores sell ladybugs for cheap, and ladybugs DEVOUR aphids. Release some a few days before you plan to harvest and they’ll eat up all the aphids, then will fly away to greener pastures. Do this any time during the grow season if you get an aphid infestation!

How Do I Package My Hops?

The last step (aside from brewing) is packaging your hops and storing them. Hopefully you have a scale. If you don’t, go get one. Seriously, how did you expect to properly measure these out for your brew days, anyway? Great, so now you have a scale. Let’s get started. First, you’ll need some freezer bags. Large, small, it’s up to you. Choose small if you’re dividing your hops up as recommended below, otherwise, gallon bags will suffice. Even BETTER would be vacuum sealer bags. There is an additional cost and a little more work involved, but if you’re growing a lot of hops it’s a worthwhile investment. Now, measure out your dried harvest into one- or two-ounce “servings.” This will allow you to grab exactly the amount you need for your brew day. Alternatively, just fill up some big ol’ bags and worry about measurements later! Place your now-dried hop cones in freezer bags, squeezing out as much oxygen as possible when you do. If you can vacuum seal them instead, absolutely do it. Either way, it’s okay to flatten the cones! You want as little oxygen in those bags as possible. Label your sealed bags with the hop strain, date, and if applicable, weight. You can now store them in your freezer just like hops you've purchased in the past. That’s it. You are ready to enjoy the comfort of knowing that you have a bunch of fresh, homegrown hops waiting for you whenever you need them. Even better, if stored properly you don’t need to rush to use them. If stored at room temperature, fresh hop cones may have a useful shelf life of a few months before they start losing significant bitterness and aroma potential, but storing in the freezer can extend the useful life of your hops by three to four times. While it’s not recommended, this writer has successfully used hops stored in the freezer for two years, and still got noticeable flavor, aroma and bitterness from them. You can also use aged hops in your sour and wild ales. Hop cones of up to three years old are still viable for beers like these! Don’t get complacent, though; try to use yours within six months. Fresh hops is half the reason you grew them in the first place, after all!

Overwintering Your Hop Plants

The last thing to consider is what to do with your hop plants over the winter. This is the easiest part of all, because it’s a whole lot of nothing. Whether you left your bines intact after harvest or cut them down to about three feet off the ground, for now just leave them alone. As autumn arrives and winter draws near, the plants will prepare for dormancy. They will draw nutrients down into the ground, strengthening the root system. Allow the plants to grow brown and brittle, and the leaves to fall off. Basically, it should look dead. When they are nice and crispy and you think you’ve just killed the precious plant you’ve been caring for all year, chop it off at ground level. Yes, it will feel wrong – but it’s oh so right. Cover with a layer of mulch about two to five inches thick to protect against deep freezes, head inside, and pour yourself a nice barleywine. You’re not going to be seeing your plants again until spring. But no worries, because they’ll come back stronger than the year before. Shoots will be plentiful. The growth will blow your mind. You’ll start the whole cycle anew, and the next thing you know you’ll be giving hops away to your homebrewing friends. Happy growing, happy harvest, and happy brewing! If you missed out this hop growing season, it's okay because Homebrew Supply stocks tons of your favorite hop varieties. {{block type="hbs_hbs/wordpress_articleFirstSliderBlock"}}