How to Grow Hops
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Growing hops rewards homebrewers and gardeners. Use these tips for buying, planting and nurturing this fast-growing vine.
Hops are turning homebrewers into gardeners and gardeners into homebrewers. Gardeners like this fast-growing perennial vine as an attractive addition to the landscape as it twists its way up or across a support and displays its pretty cone-like flowers, which are the hops.
For brewers, growing this key ingredient saves money and provides more options. Plus it’s easy and fun. Ready to grow? Here’s what you need to know.
Hop vines (technically called “bines” because of how they climb a support) grow from rhizomes, a horizontal root that sends rootlets downward and stems upward. There are male and female rhizomes, but it’s the females that produce the flowers (also called cones).
Hop vines can grow 25 feet or more, so they need some kind of support to climb. This could be a pole, a rope or a trellis. Or you could have them grow vertically and then horizontally, like up and over an arbor. The cones get heavy, so make sure the support is strong and stable.
What to Buy
You can buy hop rhizomes at garden centers and brewing supply stores or online. There are numerous varieties of the plant. They vary in their level of bitterness and aroma, so you can choose one that has the characteristics you’re looking for if you’re planning to use the hops for brewing.
Garden centers tend to sell what grows well locally, so check with them. You can also contact your county extension service for help in choosing a variety that will do well in your area. Buy from a reputable seller to make sure the rhizomes are free of disease.
Grow hops in an area of the yard that gets at least six to eight hours of sunlight and where you can provide proper support and water. They like a soil that’s loamy and drains well, and is slightly acidic (around 6.7 pH). You can check and amend your soil with a soil pH test kit. If the pH is low, add lime. If it’s high, add aluminum sulfate and sulfur.
Plant hop rhizomes in the spring, about three feet apart, when all signs of frost have passed. For each rhizome, loosen the soil about six to eight inches down. Work in some all-purpose fertilizer if you like and create a mound. Plant the rhizome horizontally about two inches deep, with the rootlets down and the shoots facing up. Be sure to have the support in place when you plant because hops grow fast.
- Water frequently, especially during the first year.
- Once the shoots from a rhizome have emerged, prune them so you have just two or three shoots. Initially, you’ll need to coach them around the support. But after they grow a bit, the shoots will climb on their own and grow up to a foot a day.
- Fertilize several times during the growing season with an N-P-K fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium). The American Homebrewers Association recommends fertilizing when you see the first sprout, three weeks later, in mid-summer and when the plant first starts to flower.
Vines take a couple of years to mature before they produce much of a hop harvest. In late summer or early fall, start checking the cones to see if they’re ready. The American Homebrewers Association suggests these three methods for checking:
- Give the cones a light squeeze occasionally. They should feel light and dry, and spring back after a squeeze.
- Pick a cone, roll it in your hands and smell it. If it has a pungent aroma between cut grass and onion, it’s ready.
- Roll the cone next to your ear. If it makes a cricket sound, it’s ready.
Don’t wait too long to check them. If they over-ripen, they’re not usable. How can you tell? The cones produce a yellow powder called lupulin. If that powder turns orange and smells rancid when you check them, they’re overripe.
You can store fresh hops in the freezer or dry them.