An active member of the Krausen Commandos, a homebrewing club in northwestern Connecticut, Mike Eyre is always looking for a new challenge. Like most brewers, when Eyre started 10 years ago, he used extract kits. “I thought it was cheating,” he says. “It’s homebrewing with training wheels.” Eyre quickly moved on to all-grain brewing and six years ago, he began growing hops in his backyard in Barkhamsted. He and a buddy used homegrown hops in their Scattered Showers Dunkel, which won second place in the 2008 New England Regional Homebrew Competition. Though hops are hearty plants that don’t require a ton of maintenance, the vines still require work to plant, train and pick, says Eyre. But it’s one of the only ways to get fresh or “wet” hop brews, which use hops picked within 24 hours of the fall harvest. The result is a more pungent flavor and aroma that makes all the time spent in the garden worthwhile, says Eyre. “Like anything else, it’s better when you make it yourself.” —Emily Haile
Select a variety: This is the fun part, says Eyre. He suggests sampling a bunch of craft beers and discovering which hops are brewed into your favorites. Hop uses fall into three categories: Some are best for aroma, others for flavor and bittering, while many are dual-purpose and can be used for both. Eyre calls the vigorous Cascade variety the “VW or Chevy of hops,” with its popular aromas of citrus and grapefruit. His preferred bittering varieties are Columbus or Nugget, while Centennial, known as “super Cascade,” makes for a nice dual-purpose hop. Root cuttings, called rhizomes, are available each spring for planting. Eyre first ordered rhizomes through his local florist; now, he buys through Hops Direct, which sells more than two dozen varieties grown on a family farm in Washington’s Yakima Valley.
Plant and care: Hops thrive in temperate climates with plenty of sun, good soil and water. Hops Direct recommends planting two to three rhizomes per variety in spring. Eyre’s yard had poor soil, so he dug a 3-foot-square hole and filled it with compost and organic fertilizer (he swears by llama manure). If you have limited yard space, plant the vines in large pots. Eyre’s seen his hops grow up to a foot a day, adding, “They can take over your yard if you’re not careful.” The vines can easily grow 30 feet up a pole or the side of a house, but Eyre came up with a unique way to hand-train them around a wooden pyramid structure he built. He trains the vines around an 8-foot teepee wrapped in twine, creating the effect of a tree.
Harvest: The hop harvest will be small in the first season as the roots are still establishing themselves. After a year, you can expect peak yield, though Eyre says that in a good year, a single Cascade plant can produce one to two pounds of hops—enough for up to four 5-gallon batches of IPA. Hop cones are ready for picking in late August and early September when they turn dry, sticky and produce a visible yellow substance called lupulin. Home growers have an advantage over commercial farms since they can hand-pick the hops at their peak. After harvest, there are several options: Dry them in a food dehydrator (Eyre has also successfully dried hops on a window screen in the attic), age them in a paper bag for at least a year to use for bittering sour beers, or use them right after the harvest in a wet-hopped beer. After harvest, prune each plant down to the roots.