Home beer brewing has proven itself as a top hobby among twenty- and thirty-somethings in recent years. And the natural evolution from brewing beer at home is to grow the hops that flavor it. Hops provide the bitter, earthy flavor and mellow aftertaste that craft brew connoisseurs adore, yet few beer drinkers realize how easy it is to grow their own.
Hops are the papery husks of a large perennial vine, Humulus lupus. The vine has fleshy, rhizomatous roots, a cutting of which is the preferred propagation method. You may occasionally find potted hops vines in retail nurseries, but ordering a 'bare root' rhizome from an online supplier is the more common way to get started. Look for varieties with known beer-making qualities like 'Willamette', 'Chinook', or 'Mt. Hood'. These are all female varieties, a necessity to prevent seed formation which lowers the quality of the beer.
Bare root planting is typically done in late winter. Hops vines can survive in meager soil conditions, but for a big harvest of high quality hops, plant them in the richest possible soil. If your soil is not already dark, loose and crumbly, dig up an area 4 feet by 4 feet and 8 inches deep for each vine and mix equal parts of compost with the soil. Sculpt this mixture into a low broad mound and you'll have the ideal bed for a hops vine.
Hops vines require full sun and lots of space to grow. The traditional method is to use an 18-foot tall trellis, though 8 to 10 feet is sufficient for home production. The vines are voluminous, but lightweight -- a wire grid stretched between two posts is sufficient to support them. Water deeply but infrequently, preferably at ground level to discourage the fungal diseases that hops vines are susceptible to when their leaves are constantly wet.
Hops look like small green pine cones when they ripen in late summer. Allow them to dry on the vine to a light brown color in early fall and then let them dry a few more days on screens in a shaded, breezy place after harvesting. They are then ready for a harvest season brew.