The time for brewing beer is upon us. The weather is cooling into fall and putting a five-gallon pot of water to boil on the kitchen stove no longer seems like an insane idea. There is another reason to brew this time of year: hops. Starting in late August and continuing into early September, hops plants are ready for harvest. Hops are a core ingredient in brewing beer.
Hop vines, growing up to 25 feet tall in full sun (six to eight hours/day), are proliferating around my neighborhood as more and more people plant this hardy perennial, apparently for its fragrant smell alone, for the cones always seem to languish on their vines.
Brewing with “wet” hops can be intimidating when you’re used to packaged pellets from the supply store. With a few simple instructions, however, treating your beer with the fresh touch of local hops is certain to produce satisfying results.
Imagine sticking your nose over a newly poured IPA. What smells hit you? Pine sap. Grapefruit. Marijuana? When early taxonomists were deciphering and deciding the evolutionary relationship between animals and plants, assigning them kingdoms, families and so on, they linked Humulus lupulus, hops, with Cannabis sativa, marijuana, mostly because the similar structure of their palmately lobed leaves seemed to indicate a connection.
In the years since, DNA testing has allowed molecular biologists to test conclusively at a genetic level the once-assumed relationship between plants and animals. As a result, many of these early taxonomic guesses have been debunked. However, a genetic test of hops and marijuana conducted in 2002 confirmed that the two plants indeed both belong to the family Cannabinaceae.
Homebrewers have been known to experiment with marijuana-hopped beer. THC is alcohol-soluble and the higher the alcohol percentage, the more extraction. Instructions (with wildly varying techniques and outcomes) are available on the web.
For a brewer, the most important part of the hop vine is the cone. Underneath each leafy bract on the cottonball-sized cone lies the magic source of bitterness and flavor, the lupulin gland. This gland contains resins filled with essential oils and alpha and beta acids. Break open a dry cone and you’ll see the tiny yellow particles.
If you’re already a homebrewer, you’re probably familiar with alpha acids. Each packet of hops from the brew supply store gives the hops an alpha acid percentage. High-percentage hops are added at the beginning of the wort boil and give a beer its bitter taste. Low-percentage hops are added at the end of the boil or during fermentation (dry hopping) to impart floral aromas.
The 100-plus hops varieties can mostly be divided into bittering or finishing hops. The varieties are also known individually for their unique flavor and aroma characteristics: For instance, Cascade is considered flowery and citrusy, Millenium mild and herbal, Willamette spicy.
Wet hops: wild vs homegrown
Most hop cultivars used by brewers, both professional and amateur, originate from the wild Eurasia hop, domesticated around the 11th century. Six centuries later, offspring of this domesticated Eurasian hop were introduced to North America. Sometimes, hops being a tenacious plant, these domesticated varieties escaped their gardens and farms and became established along roads, in canyons and fields around the country. Sometimes, they crossed with the native wild North American hop. These days wild hops—natives, escapees and cross-breeds—can be found across the country and even here in Utah. One trusted source reports wild hops growing in Provo Canyon near Bridal Veil Falls.
It’s nearly impossible to determine exactly what kind of hop you have when you find it growing wild. But no matter what it is, wild hops are fine to use in homebrew. Just ask Desert Edge Brewery masterbrewer Chris Haas. Since 2006 Hass has foraged wild hops to use in his seasonal, local-ingredient-sourced brew, Radius (within a radius of 150 miles).
The only tricky part to using wild foraged hops, says Hass, is not knowing the varietal or the alpha content. Without this knowledge, a brewer can only guess if the hops should go in for two minutes or a whole hour. The way to find out, says Hass, is through experimentation: trial and error.
Because of this unavoidable variable factor with mysterious wild hops, using homegrown hops is a little easier. Likely, you know what varietal you’re using from the start. That still doesn’t mean you know the exact alpha acid percentage. When you buy Cascade, for instance, the hop has been tested and the package will give its exact alpha percentage—helping you know how long to boil it depending on how much bitterness you want. But Cascade has a natural acid makeup that ranges from 4 to 7% and the same vine may produce cones with a different percentage year to year depending on growing conditions (rainfall, heat, sunshine). Purchased hops have been lab tested to determine the exact percentage so there is no guesswork. With homegrown, all you will know is the likely range. This just adds a little mystery to your beer. Look at it as an opportunity, once again, to experiment with different batches.
If you bought your hops from a reputable source (Beer Nut offers hops rhizomes in the spring, about $4 each), you will know if you have Cascade, a finishing hop, or Chinook, a bittering hop. Knowing this helps you decide when to add them. Unknown hops are simply a guess, but hey, it works for Chris Haas and Desert Edge.
To dry or not to dry
When Chris Haas harvests hops for his Radius beer, he brews with the cones immediately after harvesting them. This is called using “wet” hops. Don’t put your freshly harvested hops in the fridge and wait 10 days—or even two—before making your beer, says Haas. Each day spent picked but unused causes loss of potency.
If you want to save homegrown or foraged hops for later use, dry them. The steps are easy:
Place harvested hop cones on a screen and set in sun. You can also use a fan to speed drying, but don’t blow the hops away.
Drying may take up to a week depending on temperature and humidity.
To test for readiness fold a cone in half. If the stem breaks and the bracts shatter, the cone is dry.
Store in an airtight container and place in the freezer (even hops bought from a brew supply store need to be kept in a fridge or freezer until use to keep them “fresh.”).
How to harvest
Hops bloom in July and August. By late August or early September the cones are ready for harvest. Haas says the cones are best harvested just as they start to open, before they dry on the plant. Once the cone opens, he says, the lupulin that gives hops their flavor and aroma will start degrading.
On the flip side, a Utah State University extension services publication recommends harvesting hop cones from the vine only after they became slightly dry and papery. However, those are not instructions specific for brewers, so I would stick with Chris’ method.
Here are some things you might want to know as you get ready to harvest and brew:
One hops plant will yield about one to two pounds of dried cones.
Wet cones should be used immediately unless properly dried and stored for later use.
To convert from dry to wet hops in a recipe: Take the amount of dry hops your recipe calls for and add approximately three to six times as much when using wet hops.
Hops are naturally antiseptic so they don’t need to be sanitized. They will help preserve your beer, preventing unwanted growth of bacteria while also enhancing the ability of yeast to grow and ferment.
Experiment with your fresh hops for bittering, finishing and dry-hopping.
Preparing for winter: hops care instructions
For those of you growing hop vines in your yard, the end of harvest season means preparing for the next year. Though not necessary, a few actions will help your plant in the coming season:
After harvest, cut hop vines off the trellis, leaving about two feet of the plant.
Make a trench alongside the plant. Bend this lead to the side and bury it a few inches deep in the trench. The following spring, this buried branch will produce new roots and buds.
Since hops grow from a rhizome, the plant will naturally spread over time, kind of like mint but not as aggressively.
Other uses for hops
Chris Haas puts hops in a bag and hangs it from his rearview mirror for an all-natural air freshener. He also infuses gin with hops. Just pop some into your favorite bottle and allow it to sit a few weeks. According to Hass, it makes a perfect winter sipper.
Hops have significant nutritional value. They contain phytoestrogens, which are loaded with antioxidants. They help neutralize free radicals. They contain trace amounts of certain vitamins. Because of this, the extract is sometimes used in skincare products. Hops can also be found in healthfood stores as a supplement.
Red Butte horticulturalist Fritz Kollman makes a tea from hops. Put one or two cones in a tea ball and steep for two minutes. If it’s too bitter for your tastebuds, add some local honey.
Note: If you have a dog that “eats anything,” compost your hops out of site. The cones, both before and after, can be toxic to some dogs.
Katherine Pioli is CATALYST’s staff writer.