Understanding Wet Hop Ales Part 2 – Growing Hops in the Midwest

There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with making a beer that incorporates homegrown ingredients. Growing or foraging adjunct ingredients like fruits, peppers, herbs, nuts, various tree parts, and the like is one thing, but incorporating homegrown versions of one or more of the base ingredients takes more planning (water excluded). For most of us growing barley is impractical and capturing wild yeast is like playing the lottery, but growing and brewing with your own hops is a realistic proposition, albeit one that requires some advance planning. In my last post we looked at the characteristics that set wet hop harvest ales apart from other beers, in this post we delve into the topic of how best to choose, grow, and harvest your own hops.

Selecting Hops

Let’s begin by considering what varieties of hops are accessible to homebrewers and which are best suited for making wet hop ales. The first thing to understand is that hop varieties can be divided into two categories—those that are in the public domain and those that are proprietary. Rhizomes of the former, many of which came out of government sponsored hop breeding programs, can generally be purchased at local nurseries or from various online sources. Proprietary hops like Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe, Idaho 7, El Dorado, Amarillo and many others can only be grown under contract and are effectively off the table for a homebrewer.

The next level of sorting is to arrange hops broadly by geographical origin. In one group we are going to put classic Old World (mostly) aroma hops, and in the other camp the bolder, more assertive New World hops. Let’s take a closer look at the essential oils of hops in these two different groups.

Table 1 shows the chemical analysis of alpha acids and essential oils in a handful of classic European hop varieties. Most of these varieties are relatively low in alpha acids and have oil contents that are generally less than 1 ml per 100 g of hop material. Among the oils present, humulene levels are comparable to if not greater than the myrcene levels. The woody, floral, herbal aromas of humulene and its oxidation products embody the traditional notion of what hops smell like. Interestingly, Saaz and its cousin, Tettnanger, have considerably higher levels of farnescene than the other hops shown here. It may be a coincidence, but both are associated with a unique spicy flavor note that I enjoy. It’s easy to see that Magnum is an outlier both in terms of its levels of alpha-acids and essential oils. First released in 1993, it’s a relative newbie compared to the other hops in Table 1, and unlike the others it is primarily used as a neutral, clean bittering hop.

Table 1: Analysis of the alpha acids and various hydrocarbon essential oils in select Old World hops. Data taken from YCH hops.

A similar analysis on a cross section of New World hops is given in Table 2. Notice that the alpha acids and total oil contents are generally much higher than their European counterparts. As a general rule of thumb, hops high in essential oils are better suited for wet hop ales, so it makes sense that these ales originated in the Pacific Northwest. We see that with a few exceptions myrcene makes up a much larger fraction of the oils. Myrcene is not entirely responsible for the citrusy, piney, some might say pungent, aromas of these hops, but it serves as a kind of marker for what to expect. Oxygen and sulfur containing molecules are no doubt important but their content is so small (<1%) that it’s difficult to compare from one variety to another. Notice that some of the varieties near the bottom, like Willamette and Cashmere, have characteristics that skew toward the Old World aroma hops, but with higher oil content.

Table 2: Analysis of the alpha acids and various hydrocarbon essential oils in select New World hops. Data taken from YCH hops.

Since the proprietary hops are not available to homebrewers, let’s focus our attention on the non-proprietary entries in Table 2. Some of these hops can be found in nurseries, but to get your hands on others you might need to order rhizomes online. I know last year I couldn’t find Chinook rhizomes anywhere in Columbus and ended up ordering them from Freshops in Philomath, Oregon. I assume you might encounter a similar situation if you try to get your hands on varieties like Comet, Cashmere, and Triple Pearl.

Cascade – Developed by the USDA hop breeding program at Oregon State University and first released in 1972, Cascades are the original Pacific Northwest “C-hop”, the hop that forever changed the course of American brewing. They are often described as having a floral-citrusy (grapefruit) aroma. If you’ve forgotten what a good dose of Cascade tastes like it might be time to reacquaint yourself with a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. All evidence that I can find, anecdotal and otherwise, suggests that Cascades are easy to grow and high yielding.

Centennial – Developed by the USDA program out of Washington State University in 1972 and first released in 1990, Centennial hops were the next evolution toward the assertive fruity-piney hop that the Pacific Northwest is so well known for. With higher levels of both acids and oils than Cascade, as well as a higher myrcene fraction, Centennials are sometimes referred to as super Cascades. Tony Corder, from Columbus Brewing Company, describes the flavors of Centennial as grapefruit, lemon, pine, and sweet onion. Two classic beers that showcase Centennial hops are Bell’s Two Hearted IPA and Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, both are readily available this time of the year.

Chinook – Released in 1985 this is another variety developed by the USDA in Washington. Pacific Northwest Chinook is known for its resinous, piney, grapefruity character. Interestingly the myrcene content (25-35%) is considerably lower than most Pacific Northwest hops. Michigan-grown Chinook are more fruity (pineapple, citrusy sweet) and less piney. They have gained steadily in popularity in recent years. Looking at current inventories of the Ohio Hop Growers Guild, Chinook tops the list in the Buckeye state, followed by Comet, Zeus, and Cascade.

Columbus/Zeus – These two hops are so similar in genetic makeup that they are often lumped together (along with the proprietary Tomahawk) and simply called CTZ. They produce both high alpha acids and high oil content, and are used primarily for bittering. It’s hard to find commercial beers that showcase Columbus, so I reached out to Justin Reik (formerly of Land Grant Brewing) who brews at Bearded Iris in Nashville, to get some feedback on the aromas associated with Columbus. He told me their character tends to vary depending on the lot. Some lean towards orange and pine, while others can bring quite a bit of garlic and onion. As we’ll see later the timing of the hop harvest likely plays a role in that.

Comet – Released in 1974, not long after Cascade, but it didn’t take off in the same way and eventually commercial production stopped altogether. In recent years Comet has enjoyed something of a rebirth, perhaps in part because it is a non-proprietary hop. It is said to possess a “wild American aroma” with some sources describing it as heavy on the grapefruit. Land Grant Brewing makes a beer called Comet Cloud and they have described Comet as being resinous, herbal, and citrusy, not unlike lemongrass (check out the Sept. 24, 2020 episode of Beers with the Brewers).

Cashmere – Devloped in Washington by the USDA and released in 2013 this is one of the newest publicly available breeds to come out of the Pacific Northwest. Descended from Cascade, but with higher concentrations of both humulene and caryophyllene. YCH touts Cashmere hops as providing smooth bitterness and a mild citrus aroma. It seems to straddle the divide between assertive American varieties and more refined European cultivars. CBC’s Tony Corder described Michigan-grown Cashmere hops as being intensely fruity (stone fruit, overripe tropical fruit) with a note of cannabis.

Sterling – Released in 1998, the characteristics of this variety have more in common with Noble hops than its American cousins. Randy Mosher describes it as herbal, spicy with floral accents, a reasonable facsimile of Saaz.

Triple Pearl – A cross between a Perle female and an unknown male, Triple Pearl was released by the USDA in 2013.  This puts Triple Pearl on the short list of varieties that are both relatively new and in available in the public domain. YCH describes this hop as being similar to its German-bred mother (spicy with delicate floral and fruity notes), but with more pronounced aroma characteristics.

Willamette – An American version of English Fuggle (technically a triploid seed of Fuggle for the botanically-inclined readers). Developed in Oregon and first released in 1976, for a time this was one of the most popular American aroma hops. Higher yielding and higher oil content than Fuggle, this could be a good choice if you are looking for a hop with British character.  

A row of hops at Zachrich Hop Yard & Farm.

Growing Hops in the Midwest – A Conversation with the Zachrichs

Once you’ve decided what kind of hops to grow the next step is procure rhizomes, underground stems that look a bit like a ginger root. The shoots that grow off the rhizome come up through the soil and become hop bines. Many nurseries and some homebrew supply stores will sell hop rhizomes in the spring. If you can’t find what you’re looking for (like myself in the spring of 2021, or U2s Bono in the mid-1980s) you can always search online for rhizomes. I will note that some Ohio hop growers sell rhizomes online, one example being Barn Talk Hops.

Hops are not particularly hard to grow. In fact, if you decide to give up the hobby later, you’ll have to dig out the roots to keep them from spreading like weeds. They grow best between the 30th and 50th parallels. Columbus is about 40° North, a little south of the Willamette (45° N) and Yakima Valleys (47° N), but still in the proper zone for growing hops. They prefer a sunny location (south facing is ideal) and rich soil that drains well. You’ll need to build a support with strings, wires, or some type of cord for the hop bines to climb. Commercial hops are generally grown on a trellis that is 18’ high, but something more modest like 8-10’ is adequate.  There are many online sources that go into considerable detail on the how and why of growing hops. I’m not going to repeat those details here, but I would direct you to the following link to access information provided by the American Homebrewers Association.

In an effort to get more first-hand information about growing hops in the Midwest, I reached out to Nick and Mallory Zachrich, the couple behind Zachrich Hop Yard & Farm located outside of Mechanicsburg, Ohio. Established in 2017, the Zachrich’s produce on average 400+ lbs of hops that are used in directly as wet hops and another 650+ pounds that are pelletized. Breweries that use hops from Zachrich Hop Yard include North High, Roundhouse Depot, Grove City, Wolf’s Ridge, Restoration Brew Worx, Walking Distance, BrewDog, MPH, Highgrain, Third Eye, Karrikin, Little Miami, 50 West, Streetside, Rhinegeist, Unhitched, Birdfish, Tafts, and the Brew Kettle.

Pat: What hop varieties do you grow and which are the most popular.

We grow six different varieties— Cascade, Centennial, Cashmere, Zeus, Magnum, and Willamette—on 1.25 acres of land. Cascade and Zeus are the highest yielding varieties, Cashmere is the most popular.

Pat: Can you give me an example or two of a wet hop ale made with your hops.

Roundhouse Depot Brewing in Bellefontaine, Ohio does an annual wet hop beer with us using our Cashmere variety for their Locomotive IPA. It’s a great IPA with forward hop aroma and bitterness but a smooth finish. We also collaborate with Hopped Farms near Cincinnati to provide wet hops for several Cincinnati-area breweries. These beers are a hot commodity in the Cincy craft beer scene and usually sell out within a week of release.

Pat: For amateur hop gardeners like myself, living in the Midwest, what hop varieties would you recommend for making small scale wet hop beers at home.

In general brewers tend to gravitate toward varieties with higher acid levels and/or a high level of a particular desired oil. Some varieties that can be grown in Ohio with success and meet these criteria include: CTZ (Columbus-Tomahawk-Zeus), Comet, Magnum, Chinook, Triple Pearl, and Cascade. A variety that is more difficult to grow but is excellent as a wet hop is Cashmere. 

Pat: How does yield vary from one variety to the next and which hop varieties will produce good yields in our part of the country?

Our experience has been that the biggest yield factor is the ability to keep plants healthy. Keeping plants free from pests and managing water are more important to yield for the small scale grower than the genetic yield potential.  However, when it comes to varieties and yield, the higher acid varieties are generally higher yielding, while the yields are lower with aroma specific varieties such as Saaz, Willamette, and Fuggle. The variety that yields well, has some disease tolerance, and is generally forgiving in marginal conditions is Cascade.

Pat: Knowing when to harvest is an important part of the process. I was reading a story about Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale last week and they were quoted as saying that Centennial hops are a great example of a variety whose aroma changes quickly as the plants mature, going from having very little aroma, to a small window of perfect aroma, to onion and garlic. When do you harvest hops in a typical year and can you provide any tips for us amateurs?

Our harvest typically begins the last week of July and finishes by the third week of August. Hop harvest timing is critical to the quality for optimum acid levels. The moisture content of the hops is the determining factor which can be tricky for a backyard grower. A grower with a single bine would be sacrificing a significant amount to get an accurate measurement. While the optimum dry matter range is variety dependent, most should be harvested at 20-25% dry matter. Cones will not all be consistently the same exact moisture even on the same bine so the determination of when to harvest is somewhat of an average. 

Backyard growers will want to decide how they want to harvest when making decisions how to handle the continued growth through the summer. If all cones need to be harvested at the same time for a wet hop, try to train the number of bines you need at the same time. As new bines grow from the crown, they should be pruned. Alternately, these new bines could be trained as well if harvesting everything at the same time is not a concern. There will be a point that the later emerging bines will not produce cones of high quality and will be lower in acid levels. 

For a hobby grower, aroma can be an effective determinant for harvest timing. Harvesting hops early generally produces more grassy and vegetal aromas, while harvesting too late leads to aromas of onion and garlic. Again, this will change by variety.  One visual clue on many varieties is when the first lupulin glands explode and leave behind a gold dust on the hop bracts, when you see this the end of the harvest window is near.

Pat: Any thoughts on how Midwestern hops differ in aroma and flavor from the same varieties grown in the Pacific Northwest? For example, beers made with Michigan Chinook tend to be fruitier and less piney that Chinook hops from the Northwest. 

Terroir in hops has been a conversation for a while, and we hope that more research is conducted to explain the science of regional differences across the US. Some varieties show a very strong difference while others are subtle or seem exactly the same no matter where they are grown.  When labs are able to quantify the levels of aroma producing essential oils, it begins to open the door to analyze the differences in growing locations. The question then becomes, “why is there a difference”? There is some discussion about production practices as one factor. One important difference in the Midwest is the drying method is mostly lower heat than traditional Pacific Northwest drying. It is known that the rate at which some acids and oils are lost increases as drying heat increases. That could explain some of the higher specific essential oil levels for Midwest hops, but it doesn’t explain why a different oil might be higher on the same variety from the Pacific Northwest.

Pat: This year I tried a beer from the Brew Kettle, All Ohio White Rajah, made with two hops bred and developed in Ohio – Alleigh and Edese’m. The beer definitely had a west coast hop character to it. Can you shed any light on hops bred in Ohio?  

The majority of hop breeding in Ohio has been done by a hobby grower named Bob Bero with many years of experience. Bob has been working with Barn Talk Hops in Wadsworth, Ohio to expand the availability of his chosen creations to the commercial level. The variety receiving the most attention recently is Alleigh and it is being tested by some growers in the state. There has also been some interest in Edese’m. Using these true Ohio hop varieties in a beer available to the public is a big step in the development process that will hopefully provide some feedback on the viability of each variety.

We hope these varieties will check the boxes for desirable aroma, yield, growth habits for easy picking, and consumer demand. If so they could be an option as a new variety for us.  Being shut out of proprietary varieties that are extremely popular right now is a major disadvantage for Midwest hop growers. Having varieties that are unique to Ohio with proprietary rights could be a way for growers here to provide the difference that brewers are looking for.

Cascade hops harvested this year from the plants growing in my front yard.

Personal Experiences and Closing Thoughts

If you are reading this article chances are your skills at growing hops might be more similar to me than to commercial growers like the Zachrichs. So I will close with my own, somewhat limited experiences at growing hops. In the spring of 2019, I planted two Cascade rhizomes and one Centennial rhizome on the east side of a smallish mound in my front yard. Shortly thereafter I built simple frame upon which I could run cords to trellis my hops, anchored by two 12’ 4×4 posts. Taking advantage of the elevation gain of the hill I’d estimate that my hops can climb about 14 feet or so.

They tell you not to expect much of a harvest the first year and with a harvest of 5 oz of wet hops (about the equivalent of 1 oz of dried hops) I’d say that advice is accurate. The second year I harvested 1 lb, 6 oz (22 oz) of Cascade hops and 5 oz of Centennials. In year three the yields went up to nearly 3.0 lbs of Cascades and 14 oz of Centennials. Hopefully, yields will continue to increase, although I’m already at the point where the harvest is more than I can use in a single wet hop beer.

Hans Gorsuch inspects a freshly harvested hop bine from my nano hop yard.

It’s worth noting that the two varieties don’t come ripe at the same time. While waiting for the Cascades to adequately ripen it became clear that the harvest window on the Centennials was closing. I ended up harvesting the Centennials on August 8 one year and August 11 the next. In each instance I added these hops to the whirlpool of a hefeweizen I was brewing. In both 2020 and 2021 the Cascades were harvested about two weeks later and used in a pale ale.

Having heard good things about Chinooks grown in the Midwest, I planted two rhizomes this past spring (2021). The yield was minimal, only 3 oz, but that was also the case for the other varieties in their first year. Even though the yield was low I thought the Chinook had a more intense aroma than the Centennials, and both were markedly more aromatic than the Cascades. The differences in aroma were enough that I pulled out one of the Cascade plants to give more room for the Chinooks to grow in coming years.

I better wrap it up here. Thanks again to Nick and Mallory Zachrich for taking time to answer my questions. In the third and final installment of this series I’m going to take a closer look at recipes and processes for incorporating wet hops in a homebrew. Look for that post in early December, and don’t forget to check out the first post in this series, Understanding Wet Hop Ales Part 1 – Essential Oils, if you missed it the first time around.

It’s good to recruit some seasonal workers for the hop harvest. Jeff Peltier (left) and Mark Richards (right) were welcome volunteers this year.

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