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Obtaining dried hops is easy. Walk, bike, or drive down to your local homebrew store, open the fridge, and take your pick. If the exact variety you want isn’t available, you may have to ask the shopkeeper about suitable substitutions. Otherwise, the hardest decision you have to make is “Leaves or pellets?”
Acquiring wet hops, however, is something else entirely. Some retailers and homebrew clubs place a group order from growers and divide the overnight shipment cost among a number of people. But the most convenient way to get your hands on truly fresh wet hops is to grow them yourself. And once you’ve solved the normal challenges associated with nurturing a healthy plant, you need to start thinking about the harvest. How do you know when it’s time?
Joe Schiraldi of Left Hand Brewing Company (Longmont, Colorado) recommends that homebrewers conduct a dry matter test to know when hops are ready to go. The idea behind the test is that hops cones dry as they age, and picking them at their peak means catching them when they’ve hit just the right moisture level. The process is fairly straightforward.
As harvest time approaches (the cones will start to lighten in color), pluck a representative sample. Try to randomize the sample as best you can by pulling cones from various plants of the same variety and aim to remove hops from the upper reaches of the plant, near the top of the trellis.
1. Weigh the freshly harvested hops and write down the weight.
Don’t forget to tare your scale or manually subtract the weight of the container!
2. Fully dry the hops.
If you own a food dehydrator, this is the easiest method. Otherwise, conventional ovens can do the job. Just be sure to use the lowest heat setting and check the hops frequently to prevent burning. Much like taking gravity readings to monitor fermentation progress, you can check dehydration progress by weighing the sample. The weight of the sample will decrease as the hops dry and then level off as the moisture content drops to nil.
3. Weigh the dried hops and divide by the weight of the original to obtain the dry matter percentage.
“You’re looking for about 22 to 24 percent dry matter,” says Schiraldi. If your hops hit the target moisture level, you’re ready to harvest them and throw them into a kettle of boiling wort. If not, wait a day or two and try again. According to the Oregon Hop Commission, you can expect to observe a one percent increase in dry matter every four to seven days, depending upon the variety.
Schiraldi also reminds brewers that the peak harvest varies with location, elevation, and growing conditions. “Over in Paonia, Colorado, the hops are ready a week or two earlier than they are in Yakima or Willamette,” he says. “Don’t pull the hops too early, especially if you’re harvesting in your backyard and using them as wet-hops additions. Let the hops tell you when they’re ready, not the traditional windows for harvesting.”
Ultimately, intuition, common sense, and annual practice may be your best guides. That’s one of many reasons why Crazy Mountain’s Kevin Selvy recommends getting to know a hops farmer. “Volunteer your time with a grower,” he advises. “Wake up at 3 a.m., drive to the farm, help pick hops, then go back home with a few pounds and brew with them the same day.”
If you volunteer to pick hops on a farm, you’ll take home far more than fresh hops to brew with. You’ll also take home the most useful skill of all: experience you can apply to your own homegrown harvest.