Throughout the growing season the hops plant needs minor maintenance. lower leaves and lateral branches and leaves should be removed from the first 3-4 feet of the plant. Don worry as most of the flower production occurs towards the top of the plant where there is the most light. Also maintain good airflow in anyway you can by removing excess debris, such as aging or wilted leaves. If the weight of the bines is pulling the plant closer to the ground, or causing the bine to bunch up unintentionally, apply reinforcements.
The first phase of the vegetative growth lasts into June. In July the hops plant will divert it's attention to the growth in the laterals and leaves. This is the secondary vegetative stage. Photosynthesis during this phase is creating exorbitant amounts of carbohydrates that are being used for both growth and storage back in the root ball. The flowering stage will also begin during this month.
From the branches, a bundle of little burs will appear. These burrs are the embryonic form of the flower. Pollination would begin at this stage if there are male plants or flowers in the area. For the female plants these burrs eventually develop into cones. The cones are made up of a central stem with connect bracts containing overlapping florets. At the base of these bracts are where the lupulin glands are forming. At this stage the plant is dedicating its growth to the flowers, and growth of the bine, lateral branches and leaf development will slow. The cones also begin to participate in photosynthesis, providing carbohydrates for the plant to use right away for growth, and also for storage back in the root ball.
With the cones in development, routine inspection should take place to monitor the growth and maturity. The cones will grow in size and become a light green and may have a yellowish tint. They require a little over a month of growing time before they are ready. The prime harvest date will vary by region, and also by the climate conditions for the year. The harvesting time also varies by variety, as variaties with lower alpha acids will be ready sooner. Generally the middle of August will the time when harvesting can begin. The cones on the plant will become mature and ready for harvest at different times, meaning there will be multiple harvests in a single season. The cones that have received the most light, like those on the top, will likely be ready sooner. Hop cones will be ripe and ready for up to two weeks. After their peak they begin to deteriorate, and the cones will start to discolor. This will impact the flavor and aroma of the hops.
Judging the timing for harvesting the hops cones is a skill that is acquired, however there are some very simple tests that can be done.
- Cone Color - Mature cones will show themselves as light green or light yellow to green. Premature cones will be closer to a dark green in color. Lower bracts of the cone may start to show some browning. This is normal, and is a good indicator.
- Cone Texture - As the cones develop they will begin to lose moisture as the peak in maturity. This causes the out florets of the cone to dry out. The cone should feel like a very light paper, such as tissue paper. If moisture can be felt on the surface the cones are likely not ready.
- Cone Moisture - The moisture content within the cone can be tested by squeezing a cone between your fingers. When you release your fingers the cone should spring back to close to its original shape. If the cone stays indented, it is not ready.
- Lupulin Glands Color - The glands can be found by ripping off bracts, or a more preferable method is to cut the cone vertically down the center using a knife. The color of the glands and resins should be a darkish shade of yellow that is very pronounced. If the shade is light in color, it is likely not ready.
- Lupulin Glands Touch - Crush the glands, oils and resins between your fingers. It should feel sticky, and will discolor your fingers. If it feels watery and runny the cone is likely not ready.
- Lupulin Glands Aroma - This is one of the most gratifying tests, and is a good indicator. The crushed glands should be rich in aroma, with a stank that resembles the strength of a skunk. It might smell spicy. You will likely be able to smell hints of fruits and flowers. If the strength of the aroma is on the lighter side, the conemay not be ready.
As mentioned all of these tests will take experience. The best way to truly judge is to periodically monitor the growth of the cones. Start in early August and pick off a cone, and run through these tests. Do the same thing a week later, and watch the progress. It will become apparent when the time comes, and you will be better equipped with experience over the last few weeks.