Now is the time to start preparing for hop planting.
Home brewers are DYI types, and New Zealand is hop-growing country. So it’s not surprising that home brewers are experimenting with growing their own hops.
While commercial hop farming is restricted to the Nelson/Tasman area, home growers can be found all over New Zealand, finding local micro-climates and trying different methods of propagation.
Getting hops to grow is not hard. In fact, they grow as wild weeds in many parts of the country. But getting a reliable crop of a suitable hop variety takes skill and patience.
Trevor Courtney grows hop plants for sale on his lifestyle block near Oxford in north Canterbury. After growing up in Christchurch, Trevor pursued a successful international music career for more than four decades, then returned to Canterbury where he grows hops, saffron and rare-breed sheep.
Some of Trevor’s hop crop comes from wild plants, and it can take a few years to identify what they are.
“If you’ve got an un-named cutting that’s been growing wild, you have to grow it for two years until you can harvest a minimum of 200g, then you can get it analysed to identify the variety.”
This is the first year Trevor’s Wild About Hops has sold hop plants to the public. Cascade, Fuggle and Smooth Cone varieties are available now in time for spring planting. “You pretty much need to get them in by the end of spring. I’d say you’d be safe until mid-November.”
Hops are perennials and grow from rhizomes. The rhizome remains in the ground over winter and starts to sprout any time now. They can grow at 20-30 cm per day over spring, and produce flowers over summer for harvesting in February and March.
Trevor has grown them for four seasons and says they spend the first year developing the root system. “You’ll start to see cones in the second year, and in the third year we’re getting about a kilo per plant.”
He says hops are vulnerable to wind damage but seem to be quite frost-tolerant. “They need some TLC in their first year and then you’re laughing. They’re like a weed, they’re pretty hard to kill once they get established.”
Some home growers keep the rhizomes in pots, to prevent roots spreading underground. Above ground, Trevor has seen many different ways to tame the rampant bines, saying the familiar high trellis system used for commercial growing is optional. “We’ve got a friend who grows them along his fence.”
Wild About Hops is about to establish a new hop garden to allow Trevor to grow 20 different varieties. Interesting strains include ‘Danscade’ – Cascade crossed with an unknown wild male plant – and a red-bined variety Trevor believes to be Czech in origin. Some are commercial plants, including Green Bullet, but many are unknown quantities found growing wild.
All of Wild About Hops plants are sold for personal use only, officer, and commercial restrictions mean Trevor cannot access some popular varieties grown professionally.
A keen home brewer, Trevor’s interest in growing hops came from his appreciation of English ales and hop varieties.
“I’ve always been a passionate grower. I became a vegetarian when I was 20 and thought I’d better grown my own food as well, so I’ve been doing that for quite some time. When we got back here I didn’t know anything about farms other than how to grow vegetables and fruit, so I ended up getting a Level 4 Certificate in Horticulture. One thing just happened to follow the other. I had all this stock and no one was supplying home brewers so I thought I’d give it a go.”
Trevor brews on a 20L Braumeister kit. “I bought that because it has the least amount of cleaning. Brewing sounds romantic but it generally involves a lot of cleaning.” He’s a fan of the Shut Up About Barclay Perkins blog and its traditional recipes, and has adopted a BrewDog recipe as his standard for testing new hops.
“They’ve got a recipe for a 4.5% session single-hop IPA, so I’ve been using that to explore different hops – (German Cascade-derived) Mandarina Bavaria, Rakau (gee that’s a great hop, I love it), Comet, and a US experimental hop.”