Sonoma County hops growers share tips for growing at home

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They can tower up to an impressive 20 feet tall. But if you’re a home brewer, don’t assume you need vast acreage to grow your own hops. That’s just an optical illusion.

Just ask Zac Greenwood. He’s got his own “Hop Yard,” wedged into a ⅛-acre plot beside his father’s home in Blücher Valley. From this sunny spot in rural Sebastopol, Greenwood produces a commercial crop for Santa Rosa’s Moonlight Brewing Company, where he works as a brewer.

He was just a hobbyist, however, when he planted his first crop. Starting with only eight “hills” — mounds planted with one to three hops cuttings — he wound up with more hops than he could use. Now that he’s growing commercially, he’s doubled the number of hills to 16. But consider that ⅛ of an acre is 5,575 square feet, about the size of the average lawn in California.

In fact, you can even grow hops on a sunny patio in half wine barrels or large pots.

One of the biggest secrets to growing hops is not space but sun. Hops need full sun pretty much all day, and they need a moist soil, so be prepared to water.

“You need a good structure, be it a trellis or something to hang them from on a tall garage, and good soil. With that you’ll see a pretty decent crop in the second year,” Greenwood said.

Second year? Yes, hops are a crop that require a delayed gratification. Grown from rhizomes, similar to bulbs, they can stay in the ground and come back every year like a perennial. But you probably won’t get a really good harvest until your third year, Greenwood said.

However, if you’re motivated to grow your own hops for homemade brew, you might as well get started now to get those deep penetrating feeder roots going.

“Anybody who is into beer enough to home brew should be excited to grow hops themselves,” said Mike Stevenson, of Warm Spring Wind Farm in Sebastopol. Stevenson planted his first crop five years ago for home brewing. Now, he grows commercially. He has 325 plants growing on his quarter-acre pocket farm in the Green Valley area of Sebastopol.

From that he might get as much as 160 pounds of fresh or “wet” hops (as opposed to the dried hops). Although it varies, depending on variety and style of brewing and “how green your thumb is,” Stevenson said you can expect to get possibly 5 gallons of beer from one to three plants.

Some local nurseries carry hop starts. Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol carries Nugget and Willamette hop starts for $14.95 per gallon container. You can also buy them online. Homebrewing.org for instance, features many of the recommended varieties, including Cascade, Chinook, Nugget and Columbia, the traditional pale ale varieties that have a proven track record in this region. The Beverage People on Piner Road in Santa Rosa also sells hop starts for $9.99 (beveragepeople.com.)

Hops roots in the county

Hops used to be the King of Crops in Sonoma County from the late 1800s through the first half of the 20th century. But by 1960 there were only two significant hop growers left. A surging thirst for craft beer, however, is fueling a small renaissance.

“We’ve gone from essentially zero commercial acres in hops in Sonoma County to maybe 10 commercial acres in the past two years. That’s not too bad,” said Stevenson, a member of the NorCal Hop Growers Alliance, a fledgling consortium of growers and brewers.

Hop rhizomes or root cuttings are best planted in small hills or mounds to aid in drainage, after frost danger has passed.

Stevenson plants one per hill, but others, like Zac Greenwood, concur with the UC Agricultural Extension’s advice to plant two or three cuttings per hill and about two to three inches deep. Plant with the rhizome eyes up.

Greenwood said to make his mounds, he uses a mixture of regular soil from the site, compost and steer manure. Some people like to mix in some sand for good measure.

Stevenson likes to make his mounds 10 to 15 inches high. He prefers planting one per mound while Greenwood likes to add a couple more for insurance, knowing that only one will dominate and prevail.

You can also plant them in half wine barrels and pots with well-draining soil.

Lend a little support

The trick with hops is creating support for their bines, the stems that typically grow up around a heavy twine.

You’ll need a trellis. There are a variety of configurations but many people go with a clothesline-type trellis with the twine going up and down or a flagpole with the twine extending out like a teepee.

The overhead support should be 14 to 17 feet high with strings running to the hills below and fastened to light stakes.

As the bines grow in April and May, you want to keep them to only two bines per string and four to six bines per plant. Remove other suckers and branches to force the growth in your desired shoots.

Hops are thirsty. Stevenson said you should expect to administer about a gallon of water per plant each day from June through harvest in mid-August to September.

Stevenson also likes to give his hop plants a high-nitrogen fertilizer in early June and a potassium fertilizer in the beginning of July.

Once you harvest your hops you’ll want to be have your kettle ready for brewing right away, for that bine-to-kettle freshness that prompted you to grow your own hop crop in the first place. They can, however, be stored fresh frozen for up to several months.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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