You don’t need us to tell you that it’s tough to swing a proverbial cat without hitting a brew-pub these days. The American craft beer industry grew by 20 percent in 2013 alone. The surprise: Small-batch brewing requires four to five times more hops cones (the unopened female flowers behind an ale’s bitterness) per ounce than mass-market beer manufacturing. Good thing, then, that this vigorous “bine” (a vine that climbs via main stem rather than offshoots) comes by its Latin name, Humulus lupulus, or “little wolf,” honestly. You just need to give the hungry-like-a-you-know-what plants, hardy from Zones 3 to 9, proper structure.
Home brewers looking to produce a few cones – and backyard gardeners seeking a fast-growing ornamental – might enlist a trellis or two. More serious, yet still small-scale, farmers should consider devoting the side of a barn, garage, or house to hops cultivation: Screw a series of eyehooks into the eaves and run twine through the hooks and back, securing it with stakes. Larger operations will want a more elaborate system. Using 120 telephone poles and a ton of wire cable per acre, install the poles so they form an evenly spaced grid. String the cable 12 to 20 feet overhead from pole to pole, through eyebolts inserted into the poles. Anchor the twine with stakes and run it up to the cable.
Plant hops rhizomes (root stems) in early spring, a few inches deep and about 42 inches apart, with the brown rootlets pointing down. Water with a drip-irrigation system or soaker hose to reach the roots instead of merely wetting the leaves. Once the shoots are a foot tall, cut all but two of them per plant (sauté the rest into a dish of “poor man’s asparagus”) and wrap the remaining ones clockwise around the trellis or twine.
Hops should be harvested when the cones are fragrant and green – between mid-August and mid-September, depending on location and variety planted. If the hops are growing against a building, you can simply cut the twine and pull the entire trellis down. Harvesting a bigger area can be done by hand, using a ladder, or with a machine designed for the purpose. (Large harvesters can run $180,000, though Wisconsin’s Gorst Valley Hops sells a small version geared to farms of less than 50 acres for $13,000.) Hops are best fresh, but dried cones (sealed in a paper or plastic bag and set in a warm attic) should remain viable for a few years.
The Bottom Line for Hops
Establishing an acre of rhizomes with trellising and drip irrigation will run you $6,000 to $10,000. Bigger operations – 10 acres or more – require an investment in specialized equipment for harvesting, hauling, and drying.
Number of plants per acre: 750 (average)
Price per rhizome: $.20 to $2, depending on volume and variety
Harvest per acre: between 1,200 and 2,500 pounds fresh (wet) hops
Price per pound of fresh hops: $4 to $20, depending on variety and quality of cones
Gross revenue per acre: $8,000 to $12,000, after crop is fully mature, in five years
Life span of plants and trellising: 20 years (with minor upkeep along the way)