When your confident that the hop cones are ready for harvesting, its time to crack open another homebrew. Becauase now, harvesting can begin. Besides brewing beer with your own hop bounty, the harvest is the most rewarding step of growing.
As mentioned on the previous page, the cones will ripen at different times on the plant. Therefore you will likely have multiple sessions. Since risks of mod and mildew are present up until the hops are used in a brew, its important to pick and harvest under the right conditions. If there has been a recent rain, the additional moisture on the cones can help foster mold and fungus. Its better to wait for some dry days to pass before starting.
Your options for picking are going to relate to your trellis design. For ones that leave the bines within reach, picking prime cones over several sessions is optimal. The same is true for tall trellis designs and using a ladder, but only if its safe, secure, and does not introduce significant safety risks to you.. If these options are not available the bine should be cut at around 3 feet from the ground and lowered. Its wise to keep the bine off of the ground while doing so. Contaminants can be introduced to the cones by coming in contact.
Hops dermatitis is very possible and is common. It is caused by irritation to skin by the small hooked hairs on the bine. Its advised to wear long sleeves and use working gloves. Also the cones should be snipped off with scissors or plant clippers. Pulling the cones can tear off bracts, and more importantly can rupture the lupulin glands. Its a good idea at this point to create labels for both the plants that get cut down, and for the containers for the hops. This of course is only necessary if you are working with multiple varieties, but is a simple step that is a safe bet and good practice.
Freshly picked hops will be 70-80% water. This extra water in the cones will lead to mold and mildew unless taken care or. The goal is the lower the moisture content to a level of 5-10%. This can be accomplished in a few different ways. For background, commercial producers of hops on large scale use hop kilns to expedite this process. Hops are spread to a depth of 12 to 30 inches. A gas or electric heater and blower forces 140 degree air through the bed of cones. This process takes the better part of a day to reduce the moisture content. The hops are then moved to a cooling room where they can be cooled. The moisture level in this room is generally controlled.
For the home gardener, this expedited process isn't necessary and introduces some risk. If the temperature is not controlled, it could start to burn the cones, and this will result in a worthless batch. Moreover airflow is crucial. If working with a kitchen oven, there will be virtually no airflow. Space heaters in combination with fans are also another viable option, but again the temperature needs to be controlled and monitored. 140 degrees is the maximum temperature that you would want to use.
A more simple method for drying the cones is to place the hops on window screens, a sheet, or cheesecloth. The screen or sheet should be suspended off the ground in an area that does not get direct sunlight. Forced air is not necessary, but it could speed up the drying time. Its important to keep a sterile environment fot his process. If a fan will kick up dust and dirt, its better to not use one. The cones should be moved around daily, by moving the inner cones to the outside, in order to equally distribute the moisture.
Identifying when the hops is at the right moisture content is important. As mentioned additional moisture can lead to mold and mildew. There are a few techniques for this process. All of which require no additional equipment, just good intuition and experience.
- Sprig Moisture Content - The sprig is the tiny branch that runs through the center of the cone where the bracts are attached. The sprig should snap in half when bent versus flexing under force. If the bract flexes allow for more time to dry.
- Lupuseveral months. lin Powder - The lupulin glands will be drying in the process as well. The resins and oils will be mostly reduced to powder. This dark yellow powder should fall from a crushed or split open cone.
- Weight - Although there will be a lot of variance in this test, it can be used as an indicator. Moisture in the cone will decrease from 70-80% to 5-10%. This translates to a loss in weight as well that will be roughly an 80% decrease. The hops can be measure on a precision scale.
Once dry, its important to properly store the hops. Both temperature, and removal of air from the cones is critical and will prolong the hops by large factors. Neglecting this process will lead to hops that deteriorate rapidly in terms of aroma, taste, and acidity. Vacuum sealed plastic bags are the best storage device. However these are not typical household items. Most regular freezer bags or ziplock bags have a minimal amount of porosity meaning it is possible for air and moisture to penetrate. These bags, however, will definitely suffice, especially if the hops is only going to be stored for several months. Compress the hops into the bags as tightly as possible to remove excess air. For brewers with CO2 systems, replace remaining air in the bag by forcing the gas in. Mold requires oxygen, and this can increase the shelf life of the hops. Seal the bag, and place in a freezer. Heat will lower the acidity and take away from the flavor and aroma. If a freezer is not available use a refrigerator.
Although this seems like the end of a long journey, there are some other considerations for preparing for next year. Please see the next section for more information.
Watch the progress of growing hops on video. The video shows growing hops in an urban setting on the side of a house and on an arbor. The varietals include Glacier, Nugget, Zues, Horizon and Sterling.