The regions’ hop vines are nice and high right now. Soon, they’ll be harvested and dried for use. I’ve lived in a handful of cities in which the smell of drying hops and brewing beer is integral to the days, the months, the seasons. As a girl in Golden, Colorado – home of Coors – we would smell that warm malty scent of the hops as we attended church on Sunday mornings. Later, these early childhood memories rose to the surface in Ballard, Washington – home of Red Hook, in Fort Collins, Colorado – home of New Belgium and now in Chico – home of Sierra Nevada. When the hops are high and ready for harvest, that mean it’s early autumn, it is back to school, it’s slow warm days and cooling, lengthening nights.
Hops is the common name for the sprawling vine (or more accurately bine, the branches of which twine around its support, rather than using tendrils or suckers in the way of a true vine), Humulus lupulus. It’s a part of the Cannabaceae Family of plants from which cannabis also hales. Species of Humulus are native to Europe, Asia and North America.
John and Joanie Abbott of the Chico Home Brew club have a healthy home hops yard in which they cultivate several varieties of hops including the very popular H. ‘Cascade’, as well as H. ‘Chinook’, H. ‘Nugget’, H. ‘Mt. Hood’, H. ‘Centennial’ and H. Sterling. Different varieties are bred and used for different aromatic, as well as “bittering” and acidity characteristics. For a list of hop varieties and their different attributes, see this list from BeerAdvocate. Here, the club is harvesting in preparation for making their Harvest Brew.
A hardy perennial that dies back to the ground in winter and sends up vigorous new shoots each spring, hops grew as well in my zone 4, 6000 ft elevation Colorado garden as it does here in interior Northern California. Hops are best planted as a rhizome or young start in late autumn or early spring. With water and good soil each sprout can grow up to 25 leafy feet in a season. To say it’s enthusiastic is an understatement and space to grow is one of the primary criteria for deciding to plant it.
Dried female flowers from hops vines have been used in the brewing of beer since at least the 14th century, adding to the flavor of the beer and helping to preserve it at the same time. Howeve hops have been cultivated in monastic gardens and by indigenous peoples far longer than that. According to Roman philosopher Pliny (61-113 AD), the Romans grew hops in gardens and their young shoots were eaten steamed or roasted. As an herbal supplement, hops prepared as a tea or tincture is said to help with sleeplessness and anxiety among other things.
While brewers – of the home or commercial variety – generally lay their hops-yards out with straight vertical supports for the vines in order to keep the vines and high and dry off the ground, home gardeners who may harvest lengths of the elegant vines covered in their autumnal and fragrant cone-shaped flowers for pure decorative reasons, can be more creative and cover fences, expansive blank walls and more. The lovely little flower cones have a fresh piney scent and are attractive to pollinators. Dried or fresh, the flowering stems of the hops vine make wonderful additions to flower arrangements, and can be made into long lasting wreath or swags.
If you are interested in harvesting hops flowers for brewing or herbal uses, a female flower cone ready to be harvested will feel papery and drier than a green, immature cone. Another sign that they are ready for harvest is the slight stickiness you will feel on your hands from the ripening yellow powdery “lupulin” at the flower’s center. Lupulin is the active ingredient that gives hops the signature bitter quality to beer. Hops flowers will need to be completely dried before use in brewing. When drying the flower cones, make sure to fluff and turn them regularly so that they dry evenly.
The Chico Home Brew Club meets the first Thursday of every month from 6 – 8 pm in the gift shop above Sierra Nevada. There club has about 50 active members. For more information, contact John Abbott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Shasta Society of Brewers serves the northern part of the region “We have regular monthly meetings on the first Wednesday of each month at various locations around Redding. Please check our home page for the location of the next meeting. Meetings start at 6pm and usually run about 2 hours. We discuss all aspects of brewing and enjoy home brew samples. We encourage all skill levels including those that have yet to brew their first batch. If you’re interested in finding out more about our Society come down and sit in on a general meeting. You do not need to be a member to attend our meetings.”
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.