How I Became a Hop Farmer: If You Can’t Buy It, Grow It

Feature by | Aug 2008 | Issue #19

Photo by Jeff Linkous

When you own a small brewery, there are times you deal with some pretty crazy challenges: equipment problems, employee issues, yeast that goes on strike. But over the last 13 years that Weyerbacher Brewing Company has been around, I’ve never seen anything like the hop situation we’re facing right now. Worldwide shortages, varieties becoming totally unavailable, substitutions—and how about those 500-percent price increases?

Last autumn, my wife, Sue, and I were discussing the situation over a couple glasses of Merry Monks when she suggested we start growing some hops ourselves. “How could we do that? We both have full-time careers, busy work weeks, and a house and property to care for on the weekends,” said I. Sue’s calm reply was, “Oh, just let me look into it, it might actually be fun.” Now, six months later, I’m staring out my back window at 1,500 hop plants and a trellis system that looks straight out of Belgium, wondering how I got myself into this.

Sue began researching online. She found a lot of good information on growing hops commercially, organically, and on a smaller scale as well. Turns out, most hop farms in Europe are just 30-40 acres. Only in the US do we have the mega hop farms of 300-plus acres, with just 45 growers left in the country. Having just moved to a 24-acre farm a year ago, we had the available land. Sue continued researching and emailing. One of the people she contacted was a hay farmer friend of ours from New Jersey named Frank Kocsis, who informed us that Rutgers had done a hops-growing research project six years previous, and he knew the guys who ran the agricultural department pretty well.

A dinner was set up with the Rutgers guys, John Grandy and Ed Dager, Kocsis, Sue and I, and a few other interested farmers. Grandy presented the costs of putting in a hops field and the yields they experienced over the several years they ran the project. No one had ever really used what they had learned, until we came along.

The next day we started trying to figure things out. We looked into trellising costs by calling a few fence installment companies. We looked over the numbers from Grandy and Dager and considered all of the other things we’d need. We’d have to buy a lot of hops rhizomes, 1,500 in the end, and I wasn’t sure where we could get them. The land would have to be tilled, properly fertilized, and weeded and watered regularly. The Rutgers guys said they could help us figure out our nutrient needs after we submitted a soil test, as well as recommend watering rates, irrigation systems and pest control practices.

Then they loaned us this video of Washington state hops production, which they had sent for when they started their project: We saw rows and rows of beautiful green foliage and succulent hops cones, as visions of Fresh Harvest IPAs danced through our heads. We were hooked! As you can see from the pictures, we’re off to a good start, but we’ll have to wait a few months to see what kind of yield we’ll get. We may do a follow-up article about the harvest, if there is any to speak of!

How to Grow Hops

Keep in mind that we’re learning this as we go, but we have several good advisors to consult with along the way.

We decided to get a fencing company to install the posts and wire of the trellis system. But first, John Grandy said we had to get a “sub-soiler” to loosen up the ground down to about a 2 foot depth, in order for the hops to have an easier time establishing a good, deep root system, something essential for good yields. A few phone calls later we had a local farmer set up to come in and do the sub-soiling.

Next the poles went up. We used 12-foot-6-inch pressure-treated poles, commonly used for fencing. This was the tallest post our fencers could sink into the ground properly. Buried to 3 feet, that left a 9-foot height for our trellis wires, which were strung across the tops of the posts down the length of each row. Higher would have been better, but this would do for a start.

Next came tilling. John said there was no need to till the entire acre we were using (a 200-by-200 area), but to just till each row we were planting. Off to the rental store to pick up a rototiller. Six hours later, my tilling was done, and I felt like I had Parkinson’s. Then I used a lawn spreader to spread the fertilizer out on the rows—we were ready to plant.

We’d ordered 1,500 hops rhizomes (a root-like cutting), 1,000 of Cascade and 500 of Nugget. They arrived a little sooner than expected and were already sprouting shoots, so I took two days off from the brewery and planted all 1,500 rhizomes. I was left beat and wondering why I let my wife talk me into this!

We spent the next few weekends doing twine drops from the wires down to hooks in the ground next to each planting. Probably another 30 to 40 hours of labor all told on twining, with the help of numerous friends (and a few beers of course!).

Would all of this work be worth it? Who knows? But then, the hops started coming up. We installed drip irrigation at the advice of our Rutgers guys, so that water gets right to the roots and isn’t wasted all over the place, a very judicious way to water specialty crops.

As each plant grew to over a foot in length, it had to be trained. This consisted of nothing more that wrapping each vine around the twine in a clockwise direction. From there they grow on their own to the top.

Weeds, weeds, weeds—no, not that kind. Every weekend we’ve been weeding away, breaking our backs. But the hops look great! As of June 10th, the tallest ones are already 9 feet! The average is about 3 or 4 feet, with some stragglers just coming out of the ground. All in all, I’d say about 1,470 of the 1,500 survived. So now we water, weed, and keep an eye out for any pest problems—we haven’t seen any so far.

Come late August or September, we’ll know if it all was worth it. Meanwhile, it’s time for a cold one.