Well, that was inevitable.
The combination of the craft-brew craze, a huge uptick in home brewing and Minnesotans’ penchant for playing in the dirt after our soul-sucking winters was bound to spawn this: hops vines sprouting prolifically in Twin Cities yards — back, side and front.
To a man — and this is a mostly male province — home growers are using the plants’ cones to brew their own batches of ales, ambers and lagers. Commercial growers have proliferated as well, but they are selling almost entirely to breweries; good luck finding fresh hops at the Kingfield Farmers Market.
“The amount of dry hops available commercially now is wonderful,” said Matt Weide of St. Anthony. “The thing you can’t get easily is fresh hops. But now we can get a lot of different types of rhizomes [to plant] because of the craft-brewing revolution. There are about 10 new ones. So it’s kind of a good time to be a hops grower.”
Weide should know. He started growing hops 20 years ago as a college student with “a Guinness taste and a Busch Light budget.” But most of the scores of local hops gardeners are newbies, with less than a decade’s experience tending to the vigorous vines. It’s an ineluctable outgrowth of “the hoppier, the better” segment of the still-burgeoning home-brewing movement.
Started with a kit
Jim Lindborg of Brooklyn Park started brewing in 2008. “The next year, I said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can grow ’em?’ My wife decided I needed a hobby, so she surprised me with a brewing kit and then a book on brewing gardening. Someone told me they were easy to grow.”
That proved to be the case with his Cascade and Hallertau rhizomes, although the latter took a little longer to get established, he said. And during a major storm last month, a broken tree branch ravaged his Hallertau crop for this year.
This is farming, after all.
Straight-line winds aside, hops vines tend to provide copious yields.
“In year one I got enough for one [5-gallon] batch,” said Chuck Gosnell of St. Paul. “In year two I got 10 or 12 batches. In year three I’m like, literally, please take some hops.”
That’s because the vines have an almost “Jack & the Beanstalk” growing habit. They grow not only up — way up — but they spread like nobody’s business. Raspberries and phlox could take profusion lessons from these guys.
“I now have two trellises running off one Cascade rhizome,” Lindborg said. “There were probably 100 vines I’ve pruned back off of that. This spring I split the rhizome. I hacked to what I thought was actually nothing, and it did great. I took two 5-gallon buckets with chopped-up roots and gave some to a buddy of mine. I told him, ‘If you get these going, they’ll take over.’ ”
On the vertical front, the vines require trellises or poles — and lots of twine.
Every spring, Chris Dorman of Eden Prairie climbs onto his parents’ Bloomington roof and lays in twine for the coming season. “They grow 20 to 30 feet, so they need that room,” he said.
They also need loamy, well-drained soil — “in clay they got drowned out,” Dorman said — and plenty of sun.
Veteran grower Weide said southern exposures not only provide more sun but also reduce the risk of powdery mildew. While daylight is essential, darkness is important, too, he added, as the plants need to rest at night. “You can’t plant it near a streetlight or if somebody has a security light on all night.”
Different growers take varying approaches to plant care during the season.
Lindborg lays down a lot of fresh compost in the spring, and “after first bloom I’ll throw a dose of Miracle-Gro on there.” Gosnell uses nitrogen in spring and phosphorus and potassium later in summer.
Dorman takes a more laissez-faire approach: “I have never fertilized,” he said. “As long as they get enough water, they do just fine.”
These guys also differ in their preferred cultivars. Weide sticks with Nugget hops (“huge cones, some as large as my hand”) after a misbegotten effort last year to grow a Japanese variety called Sorachi Ace. Dorman is a Cascade guy (“very, very low-maintenance”). Gosnell cultivates Cascade as well as Centennial and Chinook.
Tyler Melton is raising 20 varieties at his Jordan, Minn., home. Like any parent, he loves all his children but admits to a special affection for an English varietal called Challenger. “You can hardly ever find it in the brew shops, and if you do, it’s usually expensive or old,” he said. “It’s one of those multiuse hops that has this crazy, spicy, almost tea-like thing going on.”
Which, of course, is the whole point of growing hops: to actually use them in brews to impart flavors and textures. Most growers dry some of their hop cones for later, but many also love cooking up a batch of ale with the fresh flowers.
Dorman is enamored of the delicate flavors that fresh hops provide. “If you enjoy gardening,” he said, “it’s very satisfying to use your own product to create another product.”
It takes a whole lot more fresh hops to get the blend right. Weide goes the 10-to-1 route: 10 ounces of wet hops equals one of dry. But he also likes to dehydrate hops for later batches. “As long as I use them fairly quickly, they’re just as good as hops you can buy commercially,” he said.
The store-bought hops have the advantage of listing acid levels and hop-oil content on the package. “That does help you,” Weide said. “But the fun part is, when you grow your own, you don’t know. There’s a little art form doing post-fermentation work. It becomes more like cooking than baking at that point.”
These folks are like vegetable gardeners who love to cook. In the same way that different tomatoes work best in certain recipes, Cascade and others are ideal for ales (American, pale, Wit, etc.) while Hallertau, in Lindborg’s hands, produces swell German lager.
Interestingly, as with grapes, hops varietals can have vintage variation.
“I’ve noticed different aroma properties from year to year,” Gosnell said. “Last year Chinook was heads and tails above what I had used from commercially purchased hops. But the year prior, the opposite was true, and that year the Centennials were great.”
Those who might not want to deal with such details should consider hops vines anyway. Dorman said that one of his co-workers is growing hops as an ornamental plant.
“Even if you’re not a home brewer,” Gosnell said, “they’re a good plant, and they’re actually cool to look at. Great for someone who has a pergola.”
Bill Ward is a Twin Cities freelance writer who writes about wine at decant-this.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.