If you are a craft beer drinker, you have probably noticed a few “fresh hop” beers hitting the taps of your local brewery lately. Or seen a few “randallized” beers being poured at special events. This can only mean one thing – it’s hop harvesting season!
Once a year, in late summer/early fall, all of hops in America are ready to be picked from their bines and used to make some of the freshest, most delicious beverages around. And if you’ve been growing your own hops, now is the time for you to figure out just what the heck to do with the hops and how to pick and use them correctly.
North Carolina is becoming a popular place for growing hops because the climate seems to be just about perfect for hop vines. If you are a home brewer, it is relatively easy to grow your own hops, even if you don’t have much space.
How to Know When to Harvest
You will know that it is time to harvest your hop crop when the cones become dry and papery to the touch, and you will probably notice the powdery yellow substance that rubs off on your hand when you touch them. This is the lupulin, which is the part of the hop that works it’s magic in your beer. Also, the edges of the cones may be turning slightly brown and with some hop varieties, the cone will begin to turn a lighter shade of green.
Try not to harvest too early! You will want to make sure your hops are fully ready to be harvested so that you achieve your full alpha-acid potential. If that means harvesting at a couple of different times during the season, go for it. Make sure every hop you pull has reached it’s potential.
What to do With the Hops
You have a two basic options when it comes to your hop harvest. The first is to throw them directly into a brew and make a wet-hopped batch. Remember that wet hops are about 80% water, so it will take much more weight than if you were using dry hops. There are several good calculators online that will help you calculate how much wet hops to use if your recipe calls for dry hops (which they all do).
Your other option is to dry your hops and save them for later. If you have a successful harvest, even if you use some for a wet-hop batch, you will probably want to save the rest for later brews, and you will need to dry them so that they will keep for longer. Another advantage of drying your hops is predictability. Once dried, your hops will only be about 10% water and this is approximately equivalent to commercial hops. Drying your hops will enable you to more accurately predict and control their use as you formulate your recipes.
How to Dry Your Hops
There are a few different methods to dry out your hops at home. It will partially depend on the amount of hops you are harvesting. However you dry them, the goal is to dry them quickly without heating them up too much. Drying hops at cooler temperatures takes longer but will produce a better quality hop.
If you own a food dehydrator, this is probably the easiest way to dry out your hops, as it will ensure air movement, but not get excessively hot.
Another way to dry hops relatively quickly is to spread them out on a pan in the oven. You will need to make sure that you get some air flow through the oven and the temperature does not exceed 140-degrees.
Building a Hop Drying Oast
A lot of DIY home brewers will opt to build a hop dryer. This is a fairly straight-forward contraption that is a very effective way to dry hops. The basic theory is to construct shelves made out of window screens inside a box with a fan at the bottom to push air through the entire box. You can find some good info on some very simple designs on Homebrewtalk.com and here is a good step-by step guide. This is a good idea if you are havesting a LOT of hops and don’t want to spend a lot of time running multiple rounds through a food dehydrator or oven.
Window Screen or Air Filter
If you only have a small amount of hops to dry, the easiest thing to do is just spread them out over a window screen or a house air filter. Then place them in a warm, dry location and leave them for a few days. Setting a fan under or next to them will also help. You will want to keep the screen elevated to allow air to flow through it, and occasionally stirring around the pile of hops will help as well.
When Are Hops Dry Enough
The simple tests to see if your hops are dry enough to store include:
- If the stem breaks instead of bends, then it is dry enough, as the stem takes the longest amount of time to dry
- The leaves will be papery and springy
- Yellow powdery lupulin is easily falling from the cone
Once you are sure that your hops are dry enough, it is time to store them
How to Store Your Hops
Now that you have plenty of dry hops, you’ll want to save them for later, making sure that they preserve their maximum potential. To do this, you may first want to weigh them out and separate them into 1-2 oz bags so that you will only have to de-freeze the amount you need when it is time to brew.
Once you divide them up into bags, you should push as much air out of the bag as possible. You’ll flatten out and crush your pretty hop cones, but it is for their own good. Like your wort after fermenting, you do not want your hops coming into contact with any oxygen.
Zip up the bags, label them with what type of hops they are, and toss them in the freezer.
If you have the ability to vacuum seal the bag, that is ideal, but as most people don’t have this option, you’ll have to just squeeze out as much air as possible and freeze them.
Looking for more info on harvesting, drying and storing your home-grown hops? Check out these great sites:
- Brewing Techniques: Hops in the Backyard
- Chillindamos Brewing Hop Oast Build
- The NonconFERMist: Dry Hops at Home
With that, you’re now all set to use your own home-grown hops in your next batch of homebrew!