Every year I receive a couple of calls about growing hops in the North Carolina Piedmont. Until recently, I would inform those individuals, that hops prefer cooler temperatures in the summer, which makes growing hops here a challenge. That was the general consensus since little research had been done in North Carolina about growing hops. All that has changed.
Motivated by a small group of farmers in Western North Carolina who were determined to give it a try, along with a thriving micro-brewery industry, research has started—first at the research station in Fletcher, NC, and now at a research station in Raleigh.
Hops are grown on perennial bines, which are similar to a fast growing vine, but with hair-type follicles to wrap around and attach to a structure. The flowers are the part of the plant harvested to make beer. A bine can easily reach 20 feet in one season.
On commercial farms large telephone-size posts are placed in rows with high tinsel wire stretching the length of the row. Wires spaced 2 feet apart are then hung vertically across the row on which the hops are grown. Hops are generally grown from a-sexually propagated rhizomes. This allows the grower to choose a variety that is disease resistant and regionally adapted. While hops bines are male and female, only females are grown, producing seedless flowers considered more desirable for making beer. Research trials have shown the variety of hops that performs the best in the North Carolina Piedmont is ‘Zeus’.
On the residential scale, you will need an area in your landscape that receives full sun. Hops prefer moist well-drained organic soils with a pH of around 6.5. To achieve this in our heavy clay soils you will need to amend the soils with compost to a depth of one foot. Take a soil test before adding lime to raise the pH. The NC soil testing kits now have a crop code for hops (119), but remember if you use this, your results will be in pounds per acre instead of pounds per 1000 square foot.
Hops can be trained to grow up a fence, a house, a trellis, or pergola. Many residential growers place a tall pole in their landscape with wires running from the top of the pole to the ground like a teepee. Plant the bines in the ground near each wire. Hops will grow and produce the first year. Once they begin to grow, select up to three bines and cut back the remaining ones. Encourage the bines to twine clockwise around the wire.
Hops are harvested in mid-August to mid-September, depending upon the weather, by cutting down the bines and removing the flowers. You will know the hops are ready for harvest when the flowers are still squeezable but have a paper like quality. The flowers must then be dried. Most recommend drying the flowers at room temperature in a single layer on a screen and away from direct sunlight in order to preserve their flavor. Once dried, the flowers should be vacuum-sealed and frozen.
To learn more about growing hops in North Carolina and for information on amending soil for hops, visit www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher/programs/herbs/FAQ/index.
Michelle Wallace is the Consumer Horticulture Agent for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in Durham Co. Contact the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners at 919-560-0528 or email DurhamMG@yahoo.com.