While most of us trundle off to the grocery store or corner pub when we're looking for a beer, a growing number of Rogue Valley residents are sipping homebrew — with hops grown in their own backyards.
"One of the easiest things to grow is hops," says John Jackson, a Medford home-brewer. "Once you get them growing they live 20 to 30 years."
Hop plants need a strong trellis for support, which should be installed before planting. Construction advice is available at nurseries, homebrew stores and on the Web. You can get planting information on the Oregon Hops Commission Web site, www.oregonhops.org.
They recommend loose, slightly acidic soil, with two applicatons of fertilizer a year. Rhizomes are planted two per hill with the buds pointed up and covered with 1 inch of loose soil. The shallow planting means you should wait until freezing weather is past, but no later than May. The rhizomes can be grown in pots until it's safe to plant in your site. The hops commission recommends spacing hills 3 feet apart for the same variety and 5 feet apart for different varieties.
Water more the first year, but don't expect a big harvest. The plant is establishing roots. The second year, they should start producing normally. Hops are well suited for the valley, as long as it doesn't rain. Some are susceptible to verticillium wilt, powdery mildew, mites and aphids. These can be dealt with using organic methods in the home garden.
Jackson is not alone in his enthusiasm. Everything homemade is attractive during these recessionary times, and home beer brewing has really taken off, says Bob Bacolas, owner of Grains, Beans and Things in Medford. "The number of home brewers in the valley has gone from a few hundred to over a thousand," he says.
Home brewers usually purchase dried hops, but a shortage in 2007 sent prices skyrocketing. As a result, more home brewers resorted to growing their own. This year, Bacolas filled a refrigerator full of hop (Humulus lupulus) rhizomes. They disappeared in two weeks, he says with some amazement.
Gardeners who planted in 2008 or earlier are harvesting their hops now.
"If you are into home brewing, it is very cost effective," Jackson says. While growing the rhizomes is easy, he admits it's a lot of work to start, "because you have to build a big trellis."
Hop plants grow to about 25 feet. The vine is thin and needs to be supported. The plant increases in length until days start shortening. The plants respond by putting out side growth and the characteristic tiered hop flower.
"They're really beautiful. Some people grow them just for shade," says Bacolas.
Jackson grows 10 plants, among them 'Cascade,' 'Centennial,' 'Fuggle,' 'Mt. Hood' and 'Nugget.' His yield is about a half to a full pound of hops per plant.
"If I had to start over again, I'd plant only five types, with two plants of each kind," he says. "Each recipe takes two to four kinds of hops and a total of 2 to 4 ounces of hops." This produces about 5 gallons — two cases — of beer in four to six weeks.
According to Bacolas, about 12 varieties are grown around the valley, each with a characteristic flavor.
"Some are citrus, some spicy and with a low or high acidity, or alpha content," he says. These characteristics produce distinctions in the beer. Yeast, which produces about 70 percent of the flavor, also comes in a variety of strains. This adds up to a mind-boggling opportunity for home brewers. Start by growing what you love, advises Bacolas.
Locally grown 'Saaz' and 'Spalt' hops produce traditional German beers. With their low alpha content, "they're more spicy and mild," says Bacolas. Lager lovers grow 'Brewer's Gold,' 'Saaz' or 'Hallertauer.' India pale ale (IPA) brews can be made with homegrown 'Amarillo.'
"We're selling more kits than ever before. If you can boil water, you can make beer," says Bacolas. "Beer is a natural occurrence."