Friday, March 26, 2010

Dudes, We're Growing A Beer Tree!


Since we bought our little bungalow and started working on the garden, Robb has had one gardening goal. He wanted to grow hops, and use them to brew beer.

So, a few weeks ago, we got three plastic baggies in the mail, each containing a sprouty stick. This exemplifies the magic of gardening, as far as I'm concerned. Buy a stick in the mail. Plant stick. Care for stick. Brew beer. It's like Jack and the Beanstalk, minus all the family drama.

Hops are fascinating plants. They're vigorous vines, that are grown on tall poles. In our case we're using locally gown bamboo that we scrounged from our neighbors. I spent eight summers working in Central New York which, prior to a big hop blight, was a major center of beer production. Hops are still grown at the excellent Farmers' Museum, and I used to enjoy watching the progress of the plants over the course of the summer.

(Beer is still important in that part of the country. The opera house where I worked was named for the Busch family, and the Belgian brewers at Ommegang had built a brewery in the area, because the chemical composition of the well water was so perfect.)

Robb has been watching his little hop yard with what can only be described as Tender Loving Care. He's pretty hands-off about the rest of the plants, but he's doting on his hops. And with good reason. These hops grow at an astonishing rate. They're fun to watch. Robb tells me that he read that hops can grow an inch a day, and I believe him.

The beer making part of the hop plant is the strobile (which is a word I've never heard before today). This is a pine-cone like structure what grows on the female hop plants. (It may grown on the male plants, too, for all I know. In any case, only female plants are used for beer making purposes.)

Hop growing comes with a lot of great vocabulary. Reading up on it is as pleasing as reading the fanciful agricultural language in Cold Comfort Farm. Hop plants are "bines" and they "twiddle" up the hop poles or strings. Once harvested, they are processed at "oast" houses. Pre-mechanized hops harvest was very labor-intensive work, involving a lot of people. Hop harvests were celebrated with dances, which is why public dances used to be called "hops." I have a memory of being taught that hop processing involved jumping up and down on the dried hop plants, but I could just be making that up.

Who knows, maybe hop processing will turn out to be another great therapeutic activity for Robb. Or maybe it will just be another excuse to drink beer in the back yard.


Christine said...

I love all the terms for this process! It sounds like a bunch of dudes hanging out in the field, "Hey, hand me that twiddle-thing wouldjya?"

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,

Good luck with the hops. Living in central New York, I thought I should raise some hops. They do grow well here...Too well! They spread like crazy! They also have very rough vines which scratch when you get too close. After having them for a few years I'm pretty sure Audrey II in "Little Shop of Horrors" was a hop plant!


. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

Hey Falconator -- what variety of hops do you grow?

Anonymous said...


I have no idea what variety it is/was. I did buy it from a local perennial garden/nursery. It was really robust and loaded with hops until the year before last when it started dying off. Last year it did come up, but it didn't do much. I really haven't done anything to help it since it infiltrated a nearby garden and my husband HATES mowing around it.


greg said...

Reminds me of the biggish hops field across from the Sierra Nevada brewery up here.

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

Wow, I've never actually seen large scale hops farming, except in photographs.

Ours will be the opposite of that. Especially this first year.


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