Home-grown hops

Home-grown hops

While most of us trundle off to the grocery store or corner pub when we're looking for a beer, a growing number of Rogue Valley residents are sipping homebrew — with hops grown in their own backyards.

"One of the easiest things to grow is hops," says John Jackson, a Medford home-brewer. "Once you get them growing they live 20 to 30 years."

Jackson is not alone in his enthusiasm. Everything homemade is attractive during these recessionary times, and home beer brewing has really taken off, says Bob Bacolas, owner of Grains, Beans and Things in Medford. "The number of home brewers in the valley has gone from a few hundred to over a thousand," he says.

Home brewers usually purchase dried hops, but a shortage in 2007 sent prices skyrocketing. As a result, more home brewers resorted to growing their own. This year, Bacolas filled a refrigerator full of hop (Humulus lupulus) rhizomes. They disappeared in two weeks, he says with some amazement.

Gardeners who planted in 2008 or earlier are harvesting their hops now.

"If you are into home brewing, it is very cost effective," Jackson says. While growing the rhizomes is easy, he admits it's a lot of work to start, "because you have to build a big trellis."

Hop plants grow to about 25 feet. The vine is thin and needs to be supported. The plant increases in length until days start shortening. The plants respond by putting out side growth and the characteristic tiered hop flower.

"They're really beautiful. Some people grow them just for shade," says Bacolas.

Jackson grows 10 plants, among them 'Cascade,' 'Centennial,' 'Fuggle,' 'Mt. Hood' and 'Nugget.' His yield is about a half to a full pound of hops per plant.

"If I had to start over again, I'd plant only five types, with two plants of each kind," he says. "Each recipe takes two to four kinds of hops and a total of 2 to 4 ounces of hops." This produces about 5 gallons — two cases — of beer in four to six weeks.

According to Bacolas, about 12 varieties are grown around the valley, each with a characteristic flavor.

"Some are citrus, some spicy and with a low or high acidity, or alpha content," he says. These characteristics produce distinctions in the beer. Yeast, which produces about 70 percent of the flavor, also comes in a variety of strains. This adds up to a mind-boggling opportunity for home brewers. Start by growing what you love, advises Bacolas.

Locally grown 'Saaz' and 'Spalt' hops produce traditional German beers. With their low alpha content, "they're more spicy and mild," says Bacolas. Lager lovers grow 'Brewer's Gold,' 'Saaz' or 'Hallertauer.' India pale ale (IPA) brews can be made with homegrown 'Amarillo.'

Sound complicated?

"We're selling more kits than ever before. If you can boil water, you can make beer," says Bacolas. "Beer is a natural occurrence."

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