June 29, 2022

Tips for growing hops

‘What’s good for soybeans weather-wise is also good for hops’

FAIRBURY, Ill. — Hops are one of the key ingredients for making beer and Emancipation Brewing Company visitors can see the plant being grown for the next batch from the beer garden.

Hops are traditionally grown in the Pacific Northwest, but can also be grown successfully in the Midwest climate, but do require more infrastructure than a typical backyard garden.

Hops are perennials and once established can produce for many years.

“A lot of those plants in the Pacific Northwest are 50 years old, even more or less. As long as they’re taken care of properly, they’ll just keep going,” said Lincoln Slagel, who co-owns Emancipation Brewing with his father, Don.

“They start out as a bush. They have little prickly vines. From a farming aspect, you wait until they are established in the spring as a bush and it has some shoots, then you train the shoots up strings. We use hemp cord here because it’s a little sturdier than twine and it’s very furry so it grips easily.

“Once they are established and you have them trained on the cord, then you trim the rest of the vines off, so it puts all of its effort into those few shoots.”

Two strings are hung for each plant and each sting has two vines.

Hops aren’t happy with “wet feet” and Slagel uses hopes for drip irrigation connected to a timer.

“They require a lot of small amounts of water. They don’t love being flooded. They also are susceptible to different molds, so it’s important to keep the correct amount of moisture so they don’t get too damp,” he said.

Slagel uses natural fertilizers. Hops are also susceptible to insects and require the appropriate treatment a couple times during the summer.

The plants grow up to 18 to 22 feet tall by full maturity and grow side arms.

“It grows all these separate arms outwards which can then also flower. The goal is to grow as many side arms as possible,” Slagel noted.

“They’re very similar to soybeans in a lot of ways. What’s good for soybeans weather-wise is also good for hops.

“As they grow out they’ll bud into cones. As the cones develop and grow they start producing powder and that’s where all the flavor and aroma is. As the plant dries, a lot of the flavor and aroma — which is what brewers are looking for — concentrates in that powder in the middle of the hop. We harvest the cones and then generally they get dried and are ground up and palletized and stored.”

The Slagel farm is in corn and soybean country.

“We have a lot of farmers around here who have seen our hops and heard that we’re using local-source ingredients and have expressed a real interest in trying it out,” Slagel said.

“The hard thing with hops is you have to train them up the string. That’s a manual task on every single plant four times per plant and even on a small farm you might have 10,000 plants. That’s 40,000 vines to train.

“They do sell hop harvesters, but even then you still have to go out there with some sort of a contraption and cut down the vines to feed into the harvester. So, it’s a very manual task.”

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor