Ever since visiting Belgium and seeing the hop farms that seemed to populate every field in every small town, I have been drawn to the idea of farming hops. I think this feeling is only natural for a beer lover who traveled to Belgium with no plan other than to drink lots of beers with his best friend.
One of the coolest things about Belgium is that “farm to table” is not a fad or new trend; they simply never left this way of life in many of the places I visited. This way of life includes the beer. Every small town has its own brewery(ies) that use local hops. I wanted to bring the same thing stateside and while I’m not the first to have that idea, we are one of the first “farms” to be growing hops in Maryland for “commercial” purposes.
Along the way, I learned a lot and head a lot of fun working with my dad and brother on the project.
Where do we start…
Picking the right varietal of hop to grow
This is very important as just like any other crop, not every variety will thrive in every environment. My main sources of information were friends who had grown a few plants in the past and from that audience, the quick winner was the Cascade and many described them as “growing like weeds”, which in reality all hops should since they are a vine and grow quickly.
I cross referenced this first hand research with online research which reaffirmed the decision to do Cascade as many forums talk about how well they do in many different climates. They have a high yield, are less prone to diseases and are versatile in terms of the amount of beer they can be used in.
We wanted to do two types and something other than Cascade, since they seem to be the most popular to grow. At the time, I was drinking a lot of New Belgium Ranger IPA and that beer is brewed with Cascade and Chinook. Given the popularity of IPAs, I figured this would be a good strain in terms of marketability as well. To validate this choice, I referenced a number of sources, including Hops Direct, which sells Rhizomes. It was also during this research that I found what I believe to be the best resource for this task. This table (compiled from many , many sources by someone else kinder than I) has a wealth of information you can use to find what might work best for your climate. I simply compared the description of the Cascade to that of the Chinook and decided they would work just fine.
We are about to harvest the second year’s crop and the Cascades have been very healthy and productive. We actually lost a few Chinook plants over the winter and the yield is fairly light (1/4 to 1/3 of the Cascade) and the plants do not look nearly as healthy as the Cascades.
Also useful for learning about hops, but very lengthy and scientific, is the University of Vermont Organic Hop Trial, which is an ongoing study that is updated annually.
Next post: Buying your rhizomes (or plants!)