Growing Hops at Home

You do not have to be a serious beer nerd to get involved with growing your own hops at home. Hop plants are beautiful and, when taken care of, will reward you with yummy green goodness! Growing your own hops is not at all complicated, and is a great way to enjoy the hobby of brewing even more. Here are some tips to help you succeed with growing hop plants in your home garden.

 

Planting
As with most plants you want to really take care of, being conscious of where you plant your hops and what type of soil they are in is a good starting point. Hops like sun, 6 to 8 hours a day, so a southern facing spot is usually the norm. The soil should be nutrient rich and offer good drainage. Dig a 50cm hole and fill it with nutrient rich soil, then build a mound of soil around the base of each plant to assist with drainage. If you are planting a rhizome, plant it about 5cm under the top of the dirt to allow it to grow well in both directions, up and down. Leave plenty of room between each hop plant, usually 1 meter between plants of the same variety and up to 3 meters between plants of different varieties.

Care During Growth
Being the second fastest growing plant on the planet, be sure to leave plenty of room for vertical growth. Use strong twine to build a trellis system and do not be afraid to leave 5 meters of vertical growth space, if you can. Building a good trellis can be a difficult task, but it is well worth the effort. Stunt the growth of your plants, and your yield will certainly suffer. As the shoots start to grow up from the ground, they will grow very quickly (up to 30cm a day!). Don’t be afraid to cut them back early in the growing season, they will shoot up again. When this happens, you must train the shoots around the vertical strands of twine (clockwise) for a few days until they begin to naturally follow the sun around the twine themselves. Plan to be training your plants around May. Keep the plants well watered during growth, but watch out, over watering can cause root rot. Don’t be afraid to add regular use fertilizer to the soil during the growth stage, just stop using fertilizer as soon as the plants start flowering.

Harvesting
Harvest time for most hops is late August to September. The cones should be uniformly green, smell like hop resins and most certainly not dry and brittle. It can be difficult to know when to harvest, but using the ‘press test’ can be a good way to make the decision. Simply press the cones lightly between your thumb and pointer finger. If the the cones slowly retract back to the original shape, it is time to harvest. You can either pick all the cones by hand or simply cut the bines down by cutting the twine at the top of the trellis. Some say you should cut the bines from the ground immediately, others say trim down the bines and only cut them away after the first frost. Both approaches work. Once you have picked all the cones, you need to dry them quickly or use them immediately for a fresh hopped beer. You can dry them using a dehydrator or spread them thinly on oven sheets, then bake them at about 40°C until they are dry and brittle. Temperature, time and air circulation are the most important factors here, so be engaged with this process else you will lose both flavor and aroma. Once dry, vacuum pack the hops or pack them as airtight as possible, and drop them in the freezer.

Long-Term Maintenance
After every growing season, the bines should be trimmed down to the ground for winter. You can leave a few centimeters of the plants sticking up from the ground, but cover the general area that the plants are in as well as any leftovers sticking from the ground with mulch. Then wait patiently for spring. The first year of growth for hop plants can be slow in terms of yield, but with proper care, you can have great yield with three year old plants. When spring comes around, the shoots will start sprouting early. Prune these back and allow a second round of shoots to sprout. From this second round, choose four or five shoots to grow and cut the rest back. You do not want to be training your bines too early as this will result in low yield. By cutting back the first shoots, you are delaying the entire process so that flowering begins in June. If everything goes right, you should be prepping your plants and trellis in March, training them in May and flowering by mid June. Always remember that your plants need love. Love them and they will thank you with lots of yummy green goodness!.

Tips On Yeast & Fermentation

Whether you are an experienced brewer or a beginner, yeast and fermentation should never be ignored if you want to brew great beer. Even with that perfect recipe or the most advanced equipment, just pitching a pack of yeast could be the deciding factor between an amazing beer and just another homebrew.

Which of the four ingredients in beer is actually the most important? Water certainly makes up the biggest part of any beer, malt second, third hops. What can 11g of dry yeast do compared to all those liters and kilos? Bottom line, yeast is by far the most important flavor creator in beer. This being said, do not ignore the water profile nor the malt bill, but remember that the perfect water profile and malt bill will never be delicious if you take for granted your lovely, hard working micro-friends. Here are the top four things to think about to ensure your yeast are working for you not against you

Pitch the correct amount of yeast.

One of the biggest issues with homebrewing is pitch rate, especially when it comes to liquid yeast. Way too many homebrewers pitch too little yeast. And it is not a nerdy thing to calculate how much yeast you need for each batch, it is actually quite easy to do. Following the example below, 10 liters of a 5ish percent ABV beer calls for 101 billion yeast cells, about a half pack of dry yeast or a whole, fresh pack of liquid yeast (dry yeast packs have from 200-300 billion cells, a liquid pack about 100 billion cells). One liquid pack would not be suffice for 20 liters of the same beer. A dry yeast pack, however, would be perfect. Be aware, if you sprinkle dry yeast into wort, chances are half to two thirds of the population will actually stay alive. Always bloom your dry yeast in clean, room temperature water before pitching! Below are the general pitch rates for beer yeast. For an online yeast pitch rate calculator, visit http://www.mrmalty.com/pitching.php.

Ale => 0,75 million X ml of wort X °Plato*
Lager => 1,5 million X ml of wort X °Plato*

Example (Ale):
1,055 OG = 13,5 °Plato
Pitch Rate = 0,75 million X ml of wort X °Plato
Pitch Rate = 750,000 X 10,000ml X 13,5
Pitch Rate = 101,250,000,000 or 101 billion cells

* Degrees Plato is another way of measuring the sugar content of wort, the relationship between original gravity and Plato is not linear, but to make it easy just divide the O.G. by 4 to get degrees Plato, or say that 1 degree Plato is equal to 1,004 of gravity

Be sure you know your fermentation temperature.

Fermentation temperature is one of the top three most important things to consider when brewing. The temperature during fermentation will very much decide flavor, the first three to four days being the most critical days. The first hours of fermentation is known as the lag phase. Basically, the yeast are waking up, getting used to their environment and soaking up proteins and minerals. After lag phase comes growth phase. During this phase, the yeast population grows exponentially while sugars are being eaten and flavor compounds are produced. That is why controlling temperature is so critical during those first four days of fermentation. Higher temperatures combined with low pitch rate will make for stressed yeast and fruity, estery flavors. It’s hard to fight through those flavors even if you dry hop with 12g per liter.

Most often, the temperatures at the lower end of what is suggested on the package will give the best results. It is very important to remember that during fermentation the temperature can be up to 4 degrees warmer in the bucket. If you have found that spot at home that stays at 22°C all day long, chances are you are actually fermenting at 25°C. Without controlling your fermentation temperature using technical equipment, an ambient temperature of 15 – 17°C is optimal for most American and English ale yeasts.

Give your yeast oxygen.

Yeast need oxygen to grow. Yes, they can grow without oxygen, but that might be like asking a human to do their daily work without eating. When you cook wort, the oxygen that was dissolved in the water is removed. Introducing yeast to wort that has been cooked and not aerated will only make the yeast throw those unwanted ester flavors, and the yeast may not even finish the job. Without introducing elaborate equipment, simply transferring the wort from the kettle to the bucket vigorously is a huge help. Shaking the bucket until your arms get tired is also better than doing nothing. Just remember, adding oxygen in this manner does bring with it the risk of introducing unwanted microorganisms and wort spoilers. Getting technical, you want about 10ppm of oxygen dissolved in the wort for a healthy fermentation..

Keep your yeast healthy, especially with strong beers.

Healthy yeast will always be happier workers. For the most part, both liquid and dry yeast are healthy enough to do the job well. You do not need add excessive yeast nutrients to a yeast starter nor to your wort before fermentation. The only exception is when brewing strong beers or with a lot of extra added sugars. Beers above 8% could use a booster to help the yeast finish up the job. Boosting a beer with a large percentage of sugar is also a good idea. Regular sugars do not come with the added benefit of minerals that sugars from the mash come with. Finally, keep your liquid and dry yeast packages cold and away from direct light.

Brew On!

Decoction Mashing

You’ve all heard of it, maybe even spent the time doing it. The infamous decoction. With certain historical significance, the decoction mash remains either a holy grail of brewing or a serious waste of time. But, what is the deal with decoction? Should we entertain the idea of brewing that amazing lager after slaving for twelve hours over the brew kettle? Or should we just leave this technique for the history books?

Before we dive into the discussion, let’s take a moment to define a decoction mash. As a technique, the decoction mash is a multi-step mash schedule where the brewer removes a portion of the mash, raises the temperature and boils this portion, then adds the portion back to the mash to raise the temperature of the entire mash. This, historically, was repeated three times giving what we know as a triple decoction (single and double decoctions also exist). Common temperature steps during a triple decoction are mash in at mid to upper 30s (acid rest), raise to lower 50s (protein rest), raise to mid 60s (regular saccrification rest) and a final raise to upper 70s (mash out). Traditionally, a triple decoction mash took about 4 hours to complete, and is still a technique used by some breweries today.

Malt. A real reason for conducting a decoction mash was because malt used to be quite unmodified. To control pH, break down proteins and increase extraction, brewers needed to run a multi-step mash schedule. Malt of today is very well modified and does not need to be handled in the same way. In fact, it could be detrimental to the final beer to run well modified malt through a serious of temperature steps. A common worry with decoction mashing is that the enzymes of the boiled portions of the mash are denatured. While true, the majority of enzymes actually dissolve into the main mash liquid. The boiled portion of the mash contains a small percentage of the total enzymes and, therefore, will not make an enzyme deficient mash. It is actually common to experience a 5% rise in efficiency with a decoction. This could be a welcome helping hand for us struggling homebrewers and would certainly be a plus for a professional brewery. But, malt is one of the cheaper ingredients. Adding 10% more weight to your grain bill will help you hit the numbers without having to go through the lengthy decoction process.

Flavor. Many people claim that the decoction process gives the beer a more distinguished malt flavor, a flavor you cannot get from a single infusion mash. While melanoidin production is increased with a decoction mash, similar flavors may be achieved by adding additional melanoidin or munich type malts to the recipe. The amount of melanoidins produced during a decoction mash is very dependent on how aggressively the decoctions are boiled as well as protein levels in the malt. You may not get that classic decoction flavor because of your brewing technique. Tannin extraction is also a big concern for many. We learn to never raise the temperature of the mash above 77°C for fear of extracting unwanted tannins. The difference with a decoction is that the small boiled portions have a lower pH than the main mash. This lower pH coupled with a higher temperature actually limit the amount of tannins that are extracted. Any extracted tannins are actually a flavor positive aspect of decocted beers. Lastly, decoction mashes have actually been known to decrease DMS levels in otherwise DMS heavy lager styles. This is due to less breakdown of proteins during the boiling of the removed portion of the mash.

For the fun. As a homebrewer, the novelty of conducting a decoction mash is a draw. Think about serving up a cold glass of perfect lager, triple decoction lager, to your friends. This would be both fun and fulfilling. The decoction process, however, is very time consuming and uses a lot of energy. Historically speaking, a decoction mash is suitable for only a handful of classic German styles. Is it worth the time and effort to produce a handful of less popular styles? Or is it a must do technique to produce historically delicious styles? This decision, of course, falls in the hands of brewer.

So the questions remain. Is a decoction mash worth the effort when we can brew just as good, maybe better beers in less time? Or is a decoction the reason why those classic German styles stick out and taste differently?

Brew On!