In fact, if spring is almost upon us, know that the perfect time is approaching to plant our most beloved plant: hops. Before tackling the practical part, it is good to present this unique plant, which has been used for more than 1000 years to bitter, perfume, and stabilizes beer.
Hops (botanical name Humulus lupulus) is a climbing plant, very common in central-northern Italy, which grows spontaneously along the banks of waterways and on the edges of the woods, up to about 1000 meters above sea level. Obviously, we cannot use wild hops in our beers. As it is not possible to understand what aromatic and bitter components it can provide us.
It is, therefore, necessary to cultivate well-defined and selected varieties. In order to have complete control during the brewing phase, depending on the style of beer chosen. In fact, the female inflorescence, or cone, produced by the female hop plant is used for the production of beer. Inside each cone, there is a yellowish powder composed of resins (mainly alpha-acids and beta-acids responsible for the degree and type of bitterness),
The plant grows and propagates from a large root called a rhizome, from which the typical climbing shoots then depart. To start cultivation it is, therefore, necessary to procure the rhizomes. Taking cuttings from existing plants or buying them from specialized foreign stores. In Italy, in recent years some shops dedicated to the production and sale of rhizomes have specialized, while obviously there are several in the countries with a greater brewing tradition (Belgium, Germany, England, Czech Republic).
The purchase of rhizomes was once the simplest and most effective solution. But it needs some precautions: in fact, the shipment must start in the first days of the week. In order to receive the rhizome after a maximum of 2-3 days. The pots with the rhizome are normally shipped wrapped in wet newspaper to keep the humidity. But unfortunately the transport conditions of the couriers sometimes irreparably damage the rhizome. Once you have received the jars, you can keep them in the fridge until the time has come to plant them. Today it is possible to find online sellers who send us the plants already developed, simplifying and accelerating the cultivation process.
As the second part of the botanical name indicates (lupulus = wolf). The hops are a very resistant and wild plant, which also grows in soils poor in nutrients. In order to have a good harvest, however, it is necessary to follow some indications. The ideal place to grow hops must be an area:
– facing south, with sun exposure of at least 6-8 hours a day
– with good air circulation to prevent diseases and pests
– sheltered from strong winds to avoiding damage to the plant
– with fertile soil (with a pH between 6 and 7.5) and good drainage.
These conditions are almost indispensable to have a decent and healthy harvest. If you have very clayey soil, it is possible to combine sand and gravel. In order to lighten the mass and increase drainage.
PLANT THE HOPS
The best time to plant is from March to May, after the last frosts. The technique consists in creating a hillock about 15 cm high and placing the rhizome (or at most two) horizontally at about 10 cm deep. The roots must be placed downwards and the white shoots of the shoots upwards to facilitate growth. On the hill, and around it, it is recommended to apply a layer of mulch (straw, dry leaves, or chopped pine bark). In order to avoid the proliferation of weeds and reduce the evaporation of water from the soil. The earth around the rhizome must in fact always be humid. If you plan to plant different varieties you must keep a distance of at least one and a half meters between one plant and the other to avoid “tangles” at the time of growth.
CREATE THE SUPPORT STRUCTURE
Near the plant, it is necessary to build a support structure that allows the shoots to climb upwards easily (each shoot can reach 7-8 meters in length!). Depending on the place of cultivation. It is possible to use a wall, a fence, a pergola, or columns. If you do not have these structures then you will need to build one suitable for the purpose.
Here are the basic rules to observe:
- The structure must be about 2.5 – 3 meters high, so as not to make harvesting difficult.
- The development area must be such as to allow the growth of shoots 6-10 meters long.
- If it is not possible to use other structures nearby, plant sturdy poles in the ground.
- The structure must be very sturdy considering that every single plant can weigh up to ten kg.
- To facilitate the climbing of the vine shoots it is necessary to use metal or plastic nets with very large meshes.
A frequently used and very effective solution is to build a net about 3 meters high that continues horizontally for another 3-4 meters. This configuration will facilitate the harvesting operations and allow a total development of the plant.
Another solution consists in planting a pole of about 5 meters and pulling 4-6 cables to the ground, placing a plant at the base of each wire, at a distance of about 2 meters from the pole. This configuration takes up very little space but is especially recommended for those who have to plant rhizomes of the same variety. So as not to get confused at harvest time. Due to the high weight, it can reach, it is advisable to plant the pole for at least 1-1.5 meters.
A further system consists in connecting the ends of 2 or more poles with a guidewire. A net can then be attached to the wire to allow the shoots to climb. With a distance between the poles of 6-8 meters, it is possible to plant up to 3 rhizomes of different varieties.
One last tip: always mark the exact order of the planted varieties on the plant or in a notebook. So as not to get confused when you have to harvest the cones in late summer.
The cultivation of hops at home, as you have surely noticed. It is an activity practically within everyone’s reach: all you need is a little space, good soil, and a lot of goodwill. By respecting the few rules described in this article. It is possible to obtain hops of excellent quality and in large quantities: from each plant, depending on the variety. It is possible to harvest up to ten kg of fresh hops!