Summer is winding down and fall is right around the corner. If you know me, you know I’m rejoicing at that thought. I’m rejoicing not only because with fall comes colder weather, the death of all insanely annoying insects, and amazing seasonal beers like Oktoberfest and Pumpkin styles, but because it’s almost time to harvest the home-grown hops that have been over taking the south side of my house (actually, while writing this, they are currently drying, getting ready for vacuum sealing – we’ll get to that later).
This means that it’s also time for me to guide you in harvesting, drying, and storing your cones, which by this point should be well along in their growth stage. Mine just came down yesterday! The sure-fire way to figure out if you’re hops are ready to be picked comes in three parts:
1) Sight/Color: The cone, in its mature state, should be light yellow-green and the very edges of the individual leaves known as bracts/bracteoles of the hop cone will begin to turn brown. The bracts will also begin to separate from one another.
2) Touch: The hop cones will begin get brittle as they dry out slightly. You’ll be able to tell this if you squeeze a cone gently in your hand now to feel it’s texture and compare it to when the leaves start to yellow. The cone will feel much more brittle and dry, almost paper-like. The cone will spring back to its normal state when you let go.
3) Lupulin Glands: The part of the hop you want for brewing! These little powdery bright yellow glands will cover the inside of the hop on each side of the bracts towards the stem.
When these three requirements are met you may begin to harvest your hops. You may progressively harvest hops so cones that are mature and ready can be picked allowing cones which are not as ripe to remain on the bine to grow further. Depending on the way that you set your hops up to grow, you’ll probably need a ladder. To help you from falling, I may offer one suggestion; save that double IPA you want to drink in celebration for after the ladder is used.
Last year, my first year growing hops, I picked the cones individually from the bines as there were not a whole lot of them. This year, as you can see from the pictures, I scored plenty of ounces more of hops so I climbed the ladder and brought the whole hop plant down. When you’ve chosen which way works best, you’ll want to cut the bines off from the plant within an inch from the ground. Next comes the most fun part! I mean that with the utmost sarcasm as this year my friend and hop-harvest photographer and I battled mosquitoes trying to pick the cones from the bines. We decided to move indoors. This is also brings about a key point to harvesting hops as well:
Hops are POISONOUS TO DOGS! (I’m not sure about cats, but I couldn’t care less about them. They have 9 lives anyway.) If you don’t have a pet, feel free to skip this paragraph, all others, please read for safety information. If ingested, hops can cause malignant hyperthermia in dogs, something I know plenty about now as my golden doodle, Grace, ingested one last night. Without going too far into detail Malignant Hyperthermia symptoms include and increase in heart rate, up to 200 bpm, heavy panting, and increase in body temperature. For more information on this, please look online. Last year Grace chewed a hop until she realized how bitter it was, spit it out, and I thought nothing of it. This year she chewed some, spit some out, but swallowed the majority of it. Having heard something about hops being poisonous to dogs I looked it up, found out about malignant hyperthermia, pretty much freaked out, and called a local 24 hour animal hospital. From there the doctor told me that hops usually affect dogs after they are boiled, not many cases occur with the raw cone, especially with my breed. I was calmed for the time being until later when she began showing signs of malignant hyperthermia through heavy panting at which point I freaked again. This time I called the animal poison control center to receive information from them sounding much more serious, and to the tune of $65. To keep a longer story short, we kept a close eye on her monitoring her temperature, heart rate, and breathing through out the whole night with no hiccups along the way thankfully. Long story shorter, keep these cones away from your pets. They may taste great to you and enhance the flavor of your homebrew, but they certainly don’t do anything for animals.
Moving right along, it’s time to pick your hop cones, so pluck them from their bines and put them in containers separate from each other as you don’t want to be mixing varieties. When you’ve done this long and mundane but virtually effortless task, take a second to enjoy the smell of your fingers, it may be the only time you can get away with asking someone to “smell my fingers!”
Now it’s on to drying! If you plan on wet-hopping a batch of beer, you need not dry your hops, use them as fresh as can be! Commercial hops are dried in ovens called “Oasts”. If you plan on growing hops long-term and using a lot of them, it may be recommended to build your own oast. You can find tons of different ideas online by searching Google for “homemade hops oast” or something to that effect. If this isn’t an option, you may also dry them in an oven with the door cracked. Put them on a cookie sheet with the oven set to less than 150° F. A food dehydrator also works well for drying hops. If you use a food dehydrator, dry them at between 120-130°F. This will take around a day to do. There is also one last option, the one that I’m currently doing now which seemed to work well last year: Take a large window screen and place the hops, in a single layer, across the screen with a fan blowing either on top of, or below them to dry them. When the center stem of the hops becomes brittle, the hops are dry. This will take about 2 to 3 days.
After your hops are dry you’ll need to store them. This is possibly the easiest part. Again, if you plan on doing this yearly, you may want to invest in a vacuum sealer. Get yourself one. It’ll save a whole lot of worry. I measure the hops into groups of an ounce and put them into a vacuum seal bag, seal it up, and mark it with the variety, weight, and date they were packaged. Then they go into the freezer for safe keeping until you’re ready to brew with them. If you don’t have access to a vacuum sealer or can’t afford to purchase one this year, put the hops into a zip-lock freezer bag labeled, and squeeze as much of the air out as possible. This keeps the hops from getting moldy and unusable.
When the harvest is complete, cut the bine down to within an inch of the surface of the ground. Remember, hops are perennials so they’ll be back next year and bigger than before! You must take care of them for the winter though! Last year I took fallen leaves and piled them loosely inside the chicken-wire fence I built to create a layer of insulation from the elements. You can also purchase those giant ugly white Styrofoam cones to cover them up from any local gardening shop.
Also, you may consider using the left-over vines from the harvest to make hop wreaths. It’s something I’ve done both years and they’ve turned out very nice. Otherwise they can be composted like any other yard waste. Also, as a quick note to hop harvesting and removal, be careful of the slight sharpness of the bines. It’s not enough to be scratching your hand up, but I stupidly coiled them up to move them, forgetting about this fact. When I released them from my forearms, they were covered in scratches and cuts which caused temporary itching as well as a mild burn with a large scratch on my inner arm. Luckily my neck wasn’t torn up after the picture below was taken. Jeans and a long-sleeve shirt may be necessary for the removal to bypass any of that nonsense.
There you have it; Harvesting, drying, and storing hops! If you ever have any questions regarding this process along the way, don’t hesitate to ask me and I’ll try an help as best as possible. Happy harvest and toast with a tasty IPA!