If you’re a novice homebrewer like I am – I figure I’m a couple batches away from being confident enough to pull off an all-grain recipe – then growing your own hops might feel like the wildest thing you could do to your beer, short of a trip to the “exotic spices” aisle of the supermarket. If you’re also one of the estimated 40 million renters living in the USA, then you probably think growing hops in your apartment is nothing short of crazy. Here, I’ve made a handy Venn diagram for you:
But you’re wrong, dear reader. The good news is that you can grow hops in your apartment. You’ll need space on a bright balcony to do it, but rest assured that it is very possible – and truly worth it. After a couple seasons of growing, you’ll have some heavily-laden hop vines that can star in your very own bespoke beer.
The bad news is that you’re not going to be entirely sure what you get. Hops are important for adding two things to your brew: alpha acids – the agents responsible for bittering your beer – and essential oils – the chemicals that make your beer smell “hoppy.” Normally, you’d buy hops based on the percentage of alpha acids they contain, but when you grow your own, there are a few factors that can dramatically affect that number. Did your hop plant get too little or too much sunshine? Was it too cold or too hot? All of these variables will affect your end product, and you can bet that growing anything on an apartment balcony will be more of a challenge than normal.
Luckily this article will get to the bottom of your hop-artment troubles. I’ll walk you through choosing, growing, harvesting, processing, and then wintering your hops and hop plants so that you can cultivate the most authentic homebrewing experience possible.
Picking your hops to grow
Hops are best grown from rhizomes – small sections of root taken from existing plants. Like its relative, cannabis, you only get the goods from female hop plants, which sprout cones, so if you’re growing from seed you’ve got a fifty-fifty chance of having nothing to put in your beer. Better to go online and find a reputable hop rhizome dealer – there are lots of dealers out there, and March is when the supplies open up.
And how much should you grow? Well, don’t expect anything more than a few ounces in the plant’s first year, which will be when it establishes the root system that it requires to put out a hefty bounty. In year two, though, you’ll be rewarded with a half pound to two pounds worth of cones – even after you dry and process them. It depends how much (and what) you’re going to be brewing, but you probably won’t need more than a couple plants to keep yourself and some friends in the green until next spring.
Planting your hops – in your apartment
With limited space and the lack of a garden, your best option is to grow hops from a bucket on a patio that gets sunlight the vast majority of the day. You’ll need a 20 inch planter, two cubic feet of planting mix to fill it with, and some liquid fertilizer (more on how to apply it properly later).
The next biggest challenge any hop-artment grower faces is height. Hops are vines: they crawl upwards, and most plants cap out around 15 feet. That’s a problem, because, I’m betting your upstairs neighbors won’t be too happy to see little green sprouts taking over their view (unless you have a penthouse ).
There are two possible solutions for the height predicament: first, you can grow your hops at an angle by training your hops around a trellis in your pot. You can also get a shorter-growing hop variety ( there are lots of those being developed in England right now), though your selection is still much more limited than you can expect. But like any proud homebrewer, you will not let your brewing possibilities be unnecessarily diminished if there’s a way around it, so I’ll show you the basics of growing your hops (somewhat) sideways. Hat tip to Chris over at NC Home Brewing for this ingenious solution:
You’ll need your hop pot, three twelve-foot garden stakes, twine, and a length of PVC pipe with three 60 degree connectors. Cut the stakes down so that, when placed deep in the pot, they’ll just fit on your balcony. Assemble the PVC pipe into a triangle, and drill holes in the connectors so that the stakes sit snugly inside. Assemble it all in the pot, and make sure it’s nice and firm. Now you’ll wrap the twine around the stakes, securing it by wrapping it at each stake, until you reach the top. You can do this again if you’re fitting another rhizome into the pot; just start the twine from one stake over.
Now you’re ready to plant. Insert the rhizome in the soil with the bud pointing up or horizontal, and bury it about a couple inches under the soil. Frequently and gently water the pot, keeping it moist, and soon the sprouts will appear. Once the sprouts (known as ‘bines’) have grown to about a foot long, select the two strongest ones and trim down the rest. Train the bines along the twine that you set up – one per length of twine. And in case you’ve got a trellis-related trick up your sleeve, most hop plants can support four bines, so don’t stop here!
Continue to water your baby hop plant frequently. Add water until you see it draining, then wait for the potting mix to nearly dry out before repeating. As for fertilizer, don’t overdo it, but if the leaves are turning yellow or purple, it’s probably time for an infusion of nutrients. Read this guide at Brew Your Own Magazine for more of the details on planting, growing, and fertilizing.
Preparing your hops
It’s been four months. Summer’s coming to a close, and you’re beginning to think about that barrel-aged Russian Imperial Stout you’ve always wanted to brew. You start to put together an ingredient list, and then you glance at your balcony and remember: I’ve got hops! Awesome!
By now, there should be a bunch of cones on your mature hop vines. Before picking them, check to see that your hops are ready. They should give when you squeeze them, they’ll have a papery feel, and they might be turning light or brown. Cut the twine from the top and lay out the bines on the ground. Pick the hops and leave the bines where they are – sap will drain from them back into the roots, and your plant will then be ready for next summer’s growing season.
Drying your hops isn’t too complicated, but it helps if you have a food dehydrator. Set it at 110F and wait several hours until your plants are down to about 20% of their “wet” weight – you should also be able to tell if, when you split the cone open, it’s dry to the touch, and the petals break off easily. Not interested in dropping $100 on a dehydrator? Then put your cones on a screen, leave them outside and out of direct sunlight, and move them around every so often. After a couple nice days, they should be ready to go. Freeze them and use as desired.
Using Your Hops
There’s just one final issue: what if your hops don’t turn out as advertised? If the temperature was off, or if they didn’t get enough sunlight, your hops probably won’t have the same alpha acid or essential oil content as commercially-grown hops. There’s not much you can do to change your growing climate, so to ensure that your hops don’t turn your west-coast IPA into a pale ale, you should definitely start out slowly. For your first batch, use a quarter to a third of your own hops for bittering and use pellets for the rest. Once it’s ready, you’ll be able to judge how intense your hops really are. If you’re ending up with unbittered ESBs, you’ll need to add more to the boil or simply stick to using them for aroma.
As you can tell, growing hops isn’t simple – but if you’re already brewing your own beer, you shouldn’t have any problems at all. I hope you take up the challenge and grow your own hops this summer. Not only is the growing season right around the corner, but if you’re looking to make a unique and memorable beer, you could do worse than to make part of it on your very own balcony.