How to Plant and Grow Hops

Turn beer-making into your favorite hobby with this easy-to-grow vine.

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close up of hops
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If brewing beer is one of your hobbies, growing your own hops should be on your radar. Hops are an indispensable ingredient of beer. Historically used as a preservative, different varieties impart flavors that range from citrus or fruity to piney or bitter. This fast-growing perennial twining climber can also be used ornamentally as a privacy screen in summer or to camouflage a work area. It grows very tall in a single season and requires a sturdy trellis.

The part of the plant used for brewing beer is the female flower, called a cone (it resembles a small green pine cone). Hops are dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. Only all-female varieties are grown for brewing beer (no pollen is necessary, since seeds are undesirable).

The cones form over the summer and are harvested in late summer or fall when they feel somewhat light and dry. Because the cones develop towards the top of the plant, it is easiest to cut down the entire vine at harvest time and remove each cone by hand. The cones can be used fresh (for wet-hopped beer) but are most commonly dried for later use.

Hops Overview

Genus Name Humulus lupulus
Common Name Hops
Plant Type Perennial, Vine
Light Part Sun, Sun
Height 10 to 25 Feet
Width 4 to 10 Feet
Flower Color Green, White
Foliage Color Blue/Green
Season Features Summer Bloom
Special Features Attracts Birds
Zones 4, 5, 6, 7
Propagation Division, Stem Cuttings

Where to Plant Hops

Hops love lots of sunlight, but will tolerate a bit of shade. They need a good bit of space, good air circulation, and something sturdy to climb. While hops are adaptable to different soils, they grow best in well-drained, fertile soil with a pH of 6.0-7.0. Since they are thirsty plants, locate them within reach of a water spigot. Don’t plant hops in a bed with other perennials—they are aggressive growers and often send up shoots several feet from the original planting site. 

Nearly all commercial hops in this country are grown in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. They thrive in the long summer days with short nights, and relatively low humidity these areas offer. Hops can be grown in other regions as long as they get at least one or two months of cold temperatures (below 40°F) each winter.

How and When to Plant Hops

Hops are usually planted from rhizome pieces (like lily-of-the-valley, ginger, and many ferns). They can also be purchased as certified disease-free seedlings, propagated by tissue culture. Either way, the best time to plant hops is in spring; from mid-March to early May, depending on your location.

Remove weeds from the planting area and keep the area weed free throughout the growing season. Prepare the soil by working compost into the soil to a depth of at least 10 inches.

Hops are usually planted in hills, with one to two rhizomes per hill. Space hills of the same variety no closer than 3 feet apart to allow good air circulation between plants. If growing more than one variety, be sure hills are separated by at least 10 feet. Dig a 6-inch trench into the prepared hill and set the rhizomes horizontally with any visible shoots pointing upwards. Cover the rhizome with soil and a 3-inch layer of organic mulch.

How to Care for Hops

Providing Support

Hops are vigorous climbers that need a trellis or other support. As soon as they begin to grow, they will seek something to climb, so have your trellis in place before or shortly after you plant. If you are growing more than a couple of plants, you can run a cable between two sturdy supports; the height of this overhead cable should be at least 10 feet, but a taller cable will produce significantly more hops. Sturdy coir or sissle lines run from the ground to the cable. A tent peg is helpful for securing the coir to the soil near the rhizome. A building (garage, house, shed) or tree may provide support for one or both ends of the cable.

Another option is to plant your hops on the sunny side of a garage or shed and run parallel lines of coir or sissle from each hill to the roof of the shed. To provide a screen for a porch or gazebo, run lines from each hill to the roofline.

Light

Hops do best in full sun. When grown against a solid structure, they should be planted on the south side to maximize exposure. While they can handle some shade, they will not produce as heavily.

Soil and Water

Hops grow best in sandy loam soil but are adaptable to other soil types. Working organic matter into heavy soil will improve growth. Hops grow best with a regular deep soaking; an inch of rain per week is a good rule of thumb. Avoid splashing water around the plant because this could spread soil-borne diseases. Mulching helps retain moisture in the soil and inhibits weeds that compete for water and nutrients.

Fertilizer

Fertilize hop plants when growth begins in spring (usually April) and two more times at 4 to 6 week intervals. A cup of a balanced fertilizer per hill is usually sufficient for each feeding. Don't let the fertilizer touch the plant stems. For organic hops, an addition of blood meal is helpful for supplying nitrogen. Compost can be added at any time, and is helpful in supplying micronutrients.

Pruning and Training

When plant shoots reach about 12 inches tall, select two to three shoots from each plant and train them in a clockwise direction around the supporting line. As plants grow taller, you may want to remove the lower 12 to 18 inches of leaves from the vine to help reduce the chance of soil-borne diseases getting onto the foliage.

Pests and Problems

The most problematic diseases of hops are downy and powdery mildews. The best way to avoid them is to select varieties that are resistant and to provide good air circulation between plants by spacing them at least 3 feet apart—further apart is even better. At the end of each season, be sure to cut down all vines and remove the debris from the area.

Hops may also be challenged by pests, most commonly: spider mites, aphids, leaf hoppers, and Japanese beetles. There are a number of sprays that can be used, but it is very difficult to reach the tops of these towering plants without special equipment.

An excellent resource for disease and pest identification and suggestions for control is The Field Guide for Integrated Pest Management in Hops.

How to Propagate Hops

Hops are easy to propagate by taking cuttings of their rhizomes in early spring. These rhizomes should be planted immediately, either in the ground or in pots for transplanting later.

Types of Hops

Hops varieties are generally classified as bittering (high in alpha acids) or aroma; some are considered dual-purpose and can be used both for bittering and flavor. The following are a few popular varieties (there are many more):

Cascade

An aroma hop, it has a grapefruit and piney flavor and is often used in pale ale, IPA, and porter.

Centennial

A dual-purpose hop with a lemony-floral flavor. It is recommended for American pale ale, stout, blonde ale, and wheat ale.

Chinook

Most often used as a bittering hop, with a smooth, easy-to-drink bitterness, although it does contribute some piney flavor. It’s used in IPA, porter, stout, and American ale.

Nugget

Another dual-purpose variety. It has a resinous-spicy flavor and is used primarily in IPAs.

Willamett

This is an aroma hop with fruity and herbal overtones. It’s a good choice for porter, stout, and brown ale.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I grow hops in a container?

    Yes, hops can be grown in a large container, such as a half-whiskey barrel. You will still need to provide something for the hops to climb, but you can place the barrel where that may be relatively easy—near a garage or below a second-story porch or deck, from which you can run a line for the vine to climb.  Be sure to keep it well-watered.

  • Can I plant hops in a garden with other plants?

    Hops don’t play well with other plants—they’re pretty aggressive and can send up shoots a few feet away from the planting site. Planting them near a lawn is okay because you can cut those errant shoots when you mow the lawn—they’ll eventually get the message. Hops are also very competitive for food and nutrients, so it’s best to plant hops alone in a designated spot that you keep well-weeded and mulched.

  • How long before hops begin to produce a crop?

    Although some cones form in the first year and more in the second year, your vines won’t reach full production until their third or fourth year. The harvest season is from mid-August through September, depending on variety and your location.

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