C’mon, get hoppy
I’m a gardener, and my husband makes the occasional homebrew, so it seemed almost inevitable that sooner or later we would experiment with the ultimate crossover project: growing hops.
The plant (Humulus lupulus) is incredibly easy to grow in our area—and it turns out our state led the nation in hops production in the second half of the nineteenth century—but getting started proved a little tricky. I spent one entire summer asking every nursery I could find if they sold the plant, only to be met with blank stares until a late-season trip to the Plantsmen (Route 34B, Groton; 607-533-7193; www.plantsmen.com), the not-to-be-missed outfit specializing in native plants and other hard-to-find treasures a few miles outside Ithaca, where my question yielded a choice of at least three varieties. I picked one on the basis of the colorful name, which now escapes me, and planted it in what seemed like a good spot: full sun, next to the anchor line for a telephone pole where it would have lots of room to shoot skyward. It was dead within a month, probably a victim of my starting it in August instead of May.
The following summer, after a fruitless search for information on the plant from the usual online gardening resources, it dawned on me to give up on nurseries for hop-shopping and try the beer-supply-store route instead. Instant success! Five minutes after walking through the door at Niagara Tradition (1296 Sheridan Dr., Tonawanda; 877-8767; nthomebrew.com), I had scored not only the Holy Grail itself—a gingerlike rhizome (var. “Centennial”) that cost roughly four bucks—but some handy tips on how to plant and grow it, starting with a hint about keeping it in a plastic baggie in the refrigerator until it was ready to go in the ground.
Having read that hops can grow as much as a foot a day, I had a hunch that the plant might make an effective substitute for ivy growing up the side of our two-story storage shed. The site was nothing special: a mix of sun and shade, next to our compost bin and a drain grate. I amended the soil with a bit of organic matter, plopped the hops in the dirt, and pretty much ignored them for the remainder of the summer. My neglect was rewarded with the gorgeous, ample wall covering I had hoped for, followed by several pounds of the late-fall flower buds that bring joy to brewers’ hearts. (A single rhizome yields enough for the casual brewer, with plenty to share with friends.) The buds get snipped off and dried, the vine is cut to about half a foot high at the end of the season, and that’s it.
This thing not only grows faster (and far taller) than your average weed, it had birthed so many offshoots by the end of Year Two that I am starting to wonder if I’ve created a monster. (For this reason, it’s probably wise to plant in a fairly isolated, contained location to keep it from spreading too far or wide.) This aggressive tendency (I prefer to think of it as “hardy”) and the slight prickliness of the vines (far less bothersome than rose thorns) are the only two reasons I can come up with to explain why the plant isn’t more popular or better known among gardeners whose beer tastes run to bottles of Blue. Don’t delay—plant your next keg today.
Beer sites tend to be more informative than gardening ones; a fine place to start can be found at www.brewing techniques.com/library/backissues/issue2.3/montell.html