Leonard P. Perry, Extension Associate Professor
Since my last article on "Growing Hops in New England" in Yankee Brew News in Spring 1991 I've had 4 harvests at our trials in Vermont, expanded to 3 other trial sites, more brewing establishments have opened in the region and a phenomenal number of homebrewers have emerged, many growing some hops. Here "boiled down" is what I've learned about doing it in our part of the country. [UPDATE: These trials concluded in the late 1900s, with no currently existing trial sites. This article is from the early 1990's.]
People find hops exotic, sexy. Pehaps this is because of their relationship to Cannabis. Perhaps it is because of the vigorous, twining nature of the vines (actually botanically they are "bines" since they climb by clinging onto rough objects with prickly hairs). In reality they really aren't very sexy, since cones are formed on female plants with male plants (which you seldom see) needed for cross pollination and seeds (which you really don't want in your brew). Homebrewers, unless they use only hop pellets, are familiar with the 1-2 inch long greenish-yellow cones thrown into the boil at various times to add bitterness, flavor and aroma to the beer. Actually it is the "yellow powder" or lupulin glands within the hop scales which contain all the acids and essential oils responsible for the hop character.
So can you grow hops commercially yet in New England, as was once done the last century? Yes, but it's doubtful if you would make any money at it although I know a couple of brave souls who are going to try . The pest problems, especially downy mildew disease (which my hops finally contracted last year), which drove hops west a few decades ago to drier climates still exist. Harvesting is currently the biggest limitation to commercial production. In the west, where there are hundreds of acres of hops to justify the expense, quarter million dollar facilities are used to mechanically harvest the hops (basically beating them off the vines). One can purchase smaller units from Germany for $30,000-$70,000 which is still out of reach of most budgets. Historically (and currently in our trials) hops are picked by hand. As an example, this year at one site four of us picked hops for 6 hours (24 person hours), yielding about 5 pounds of dried cones--about what we need in a year for our weekly homebrewing. Which points out also the clear market potential if commercial production could be made economically viable.
Which brings us to homebrewers who remain the predominate hop growers currently in New England, and to what our trials mean to them (contact me for a more complete listing of varieties and results). We have on trial, or trialled, about 3 dozen varieties over the past 6 years. The least vigorous with lowest yields for us have been the German Hallertau and Eastern European varieties such as Backa and Elsasser. Saazer, to many the premium hops, is great some years, not in others. It is usually the most precocious, the first ready for harvest. On the other hand the most vigorous, usually with best yields and largest cones, have been Chinook and Aquila with up to 3-4 ounces of dried cones per plant. As for alpha acids (for those initiated, the bittering component of primary concern in brewing), our hops tend to average about one percent less than the west coast average for aroma varieties, about two percent less for bittering varieties. Although last year for the first time we had a variety (Nuggett) which was higher (14.5%). The lower alpha levels are probably due to our cooler climate and shorter growing season than the Pacific Northwest (hops like it bright and sunny, with lots of water). All this means is that we just have to use more local hops than you might normally.
There are a few other cultural considerations we have learned (often the hard way), and that will be important to anyone wishing to grow hops.
*Choose a good site before planting--one with good soil. Hops tolerate a sandy or dry soil, if you provide plenty of water; and a clay soil if it is well-drained. Make sure your topsoil is deep enough for the massive root systems. Test your soil for fertility as you would a vegetable or perennial garden (check with your local Extension Service for test kits).
*Train bines in early spring when they are 1-2 feet high. Wait much longer, and they may not grow up and yield many cones that season. Use a strong twine, preferably baling twine. It must be coarse so the vines can cling to it. Don't use binder twine as it won't last the season. Check with your local feedstores for baling twine, often the season before when it is available (often it is hard to find in April or May when you need it). No matter the trellis height, our hops seem to want to grow 10-13 feet before putting out side shoots and cones.
*Keep watch for pests. In particular, watch for downy mildew disease getting on some varieties (we've found Aquila, Chinook and local wild varieties especially susceptible; Fuggles on the other hand seems resistant). This disease appears as stunted, deformed new shoots called "spikes" in early spring, soon with black fuzz on the undersides of leaves. Cut out and carry away the spikes. Organic copper sprays may prevent more mildew. Also watch for aphids and the smaller mites under leaves (the latter often first seen as overall yellow specks in leaves). Both can be controlled by chemical sprays, but better yet, by other predator insects (one source and more information for these is IPM Laboratories, Locke, NY 13092). When using predators, order at first sign of insects (it takes a couple weeks for them to come, a week for them to get active).
*If you do all these good things and end up with great vines but no cones, this could be due to downy mildew disease. Try again next year, or try different varieties. If your leaves turn brown and shrivel, the plants probably needed more water (thought about irrigation for next year?) or more nutrients (tested your soil?). If your leaves turn black, you (actually they) may have sooty mold caused by aphids--check undersides of leaves. If cones turn light brown early, before yellowish and dry and papery and ready for harvest, check for spider mites (when severe you'll see tiny webs). If cones turn really brown before harvest, they may have dried out from too little water, too much wind, or too late harvest.
Whether you homebrew or not, or if your vines fail to produce cones, consider that hops make a great ornamental vine for gardens, trellisses and sides of homes. At the end of the season, the vines are actually easier to work with fresh to make "grapevine" type wreaths. If nothing else, hops supposedly help one sleep better so stuff a few cones in a cloth bag under your pillow. But don't overdo it, you may lose a sleeping partner!
(prepared for Yankee Brew News, 1994)
Dr. Leonard Perry, Plant and Soil Science Dept. University of Vermont, Burlington, VT 05405
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