Monday, April 26, 2010

Hop Farmer

I received hop rhizomes from my friend on Friday and got the little roots into the ground this weekend.  I planted them in the back of my yard next to the fence.  It is the only space I have left in my yard for something that can go 25 feet high, but being a vine (weed, actually) it needs support.  I figure that I will train it over the fence and back down, giving it 12 feet.

The variety given to me is Cascade.  I use cascade in many of my beers.  The problem with home grown hops is that you never know what kind of bittering power (alpha acid units) they have.  Many people therefore use the hops for flavoring and aroma rather than bittering.  I am not sure I care about the specific levels if I use them in a hoppy beer.  After all, beer had been produced and sold for thousands of years without knowing what the level of alpha acid units they had in their hops.  Ultimately, with free hops, I will be tempted to use them in more liberal and creative ways.

Last year I was given fresh hops from my same friend, and we loaded them into my red ale, creating a nice west coast ale that was better than my original recipe.  I will definitely do that again, but maybe more hops even.  It depends on what kind of yield I get this year.  In all, cascade is my favorite hop (well, that and East Kent Golding).  It is a product of the United States (unlike EKG), is often cheaper than imported varieties, and I often find that my favorite hoppy beers use them as a majority of their hops. 

Hop farms (that get their plants to grow 25 feet) can get over 2 pounds of dried hops per plant from a mature plant.  I expect considerably less, this year especially, since this is the first year for the plants and emphasis for them will be growing roots.  Home brewing forums say if you get 1/2 pound per plant in the first year, you should be pleased.  I will consider myself lucky to get 1/2 pound per plant.  That would give me almost enough hops for 1/2 of the year.  So far this year, I have used 15.75 ounces of hops for 4 beers, almost 9 of which were the Cascade variety.  To tell you what kind of savings this is, last year, I bought 1 pound of cascade hops (instead of by the ounce) for something like $22 (a little less than $1.50/ounce).  This beat the per ounce price as it is $3.99 for an ounce of whole hops (which I prefer) and $2.99 for pellet hops.  I find it interesting that the whole (dried but otherwise unprocessed) hops cost $1 more per ounce than the pellets (which are pulverized and pressed into little pellets).  It must be that they use less room, less packaging, and keep better (can be sold for longer).  If half of my hops are Cascade (in my beers), I am looking at saving anywhere from $30-60 a year on hops on just these 3 plants, or about or about 5 to 10 cents per bottle per year on average.

Of course, I now need to figure out how to dry the cones and vacuum seal them for freshness.  The equipment will probably cost some, but they will have some home application in packaging and freezing foods that will also save some money.  I enjoy gardening and routinely plant tomatoes and cucumbers in my yard.  I love fresh vegetables (and subsequently hate anything less than fresh).  I am told that hops are pretty easy to grow in this hot dry climate, (most climates, really), and are more like weeds.  If this experiment doesn't work, or the results are less than satisfactory, it cost me nothing....but for now, the experiment continues. 

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