Today is the Spring Equinox, the official first day of spring. And we sure are looking forward to the warmer weather after this winter we’ve had. Spring isn’t just a time for cleaning or short sleeves, though. It’s also the beginning of growth, when farmers and gardeners all across the northern hemisphere begin to prepare the earth for life and sow their seeds. Flowers, vegetables and fruits all start a new generation, so it stands to reason that the ingredients for beer–malts, hops and any adjuncts–are also beginning their new lives. Troegs’ Cultivator Helles Bock (now in season) signifies the starting of the hop-growing season with delicate floral notes. This is the first brew in the Hop Cycle series, which tracks the three steps of the growing season. Over at the Rogue Farms, their beer and spirit growing season has started.
In this very special GBOTW post, we’ll share the life cycle of several plants used to brew, and take a look at how different breweries are preparing for this very important stage of beer-making.
Barley, as a type of grass, is a relatively easy plant to grow. People have been growing it for thousands of years, and it has been used in brewing for almost as long. Although it’s grown on a primarily commercial level now, it’s fairly simple to grow in small plots on your own.
First, the soil must be prepared for sowing. Barley doesn’t like very acidic soils, so if the land has a low pH (anything below 6), lime or compost is spread in the autumn to ensure the soil is right. Phosphorus and potassium are also important to produce good malting barley. Once the chemical makeup of the soil has been amended, it’s time to turn up the dirt and loosen it for planting. This is done right after the thaw in spring, once the ground is soft enough to work with.
Sowing starts in slightly different times for different climes, but around these parts, it would be early to mid-April, around when you start your peas. Commercially, it’s grown about 60 to 90 pounds of seed per acre, which is usually just scattered on broken earth, then raked over so it’s slightly covered by the dirt to deter birds. Grains and grasses are easily taken over by weeds, so removing unwanted vegetative trespassers is important. On a farm, herbicides are usually used to kill off weeds, but sometimes flame weeders are used. If you’re growing your own plot, it’s best to try to sow your seeds in lines so that there is room to hand-weed between the plants. Buckwheat can also be grown the year before and tilled under during flowering season to hold the nutrients and smother all weeds. Bugs and pests are too much of a problem, and birds can be driven off by a good dog.
Unless the spring is abnormally dry–which it seems this one is not shaping up to be–irrigation isn’t usually necessary. Grasses usually hold up well in drought or flood–that’s part of the reason they cover 20% of the land on Earth. Six row types of barley–the most commonly grown in the U.S.–don’t tend to need as much water as two row types. If irrigation is necessary, it should be done soon after the heads appear.
About three months (90 days) after it’s sown, barley is ready to be harvested. Around here, that would set it to be ready in June or very early July. The straw becomes dry and brittle, the seed firm, and the plant takes on a golden color. On a small level, harvest is easiest with a light sickle and the seed is separated by simply beating on it over a receptacle, but large farms use specialized machines to cut and separate the seeds from the plant so that they may be malted for use in brewing.
Hops, unlike barley, are perennial plants, meaning they come back year after year, so there isn’t a spring sowing period. In fact, hops are grown from rhizomes, the so-called heart of the plant’s root where nutrients are stored. Hop rhizomes look a bit like a stick-like bulb. Like aspen, many hop plants are connected through a single root system, and cut up appropriately, this root system can be used to start new plants.
In early spring, sometime between February and April, rhizomes are planted 4″ deep in a sunny area with well-drained soil, with rhizomes spread at least 3 feet apart for like-varieties. Too much waterlogging can result in the roots rotting, so it’s important to plant in soil that does not have a lot of clay in it, and overcrowding leads to less productive plants that are more susceptible to disease and pests. Humulus lupulus (that is, the common hop) are bines that need something to climb, such as a string, trellis or pole. This plant can grow up the 25 feet in a single season, so having enough climbing space is very important, and stunting the plants can result in over-crowding and mildew. 10-20 ft. is suggested for climbing space. Hops aren’t too picky about pH balance, enjoying anything between 5.5 and 8.
Unless the season is particularly dry, frequent watering need only be light, but fertilizers can be added occasionally to increase yield. Because your soil should be well-drained, it’s best to use a non-chemical fertilizer so it doesn’t just run off into the soil. As stated before, overcrowding is a problem with hops, so pruning is important. Weaker shoots should be cut back so only 2-3 per rhizome remain. Aphids and mildew are the most common problems associated with hops. Mildew can be stopped by trimming away the effected area and aphids can be taken care of by using a variety of different natural solutions, such as buying ladybug eggs or planting garlic or onions near the plants.
Mid-August to September is around when hops are ready to be harvested, just when the feathery bracteole (leaves/petals) are beginning to turn brown. The cone should be easily crushed and fragrant, and the lupulin gland should be sticky and yellow when the cone is split. If this is the first season, there shouldn’t be a very big yield, but plants come back next year hardier and more productive without all the preparation over again.
There are so many additions to beers that we hardly have time to go over them all. So we’ll just name a few common adjuncts, and give a short explanation of when to plant and when to harvest.
Cherries*: Cherry trees are not only beautiful in the spring, but they can produce fruits in July if you have several of them.
Apples*: Apples are great for ciders and can also be added to beers, and there are so many varieties, you can find apples that will ripen anywhere between July and early November.
Pears*: These should be picked in the late summer to early fall, and allowed to ripen off the tree.
Tomatoes: A strange but tasty ingredient, tomatoes usually ripen in late July or early August, and should be planted sometime in late April, after the weather has warmed.
Peppers: Peppers can be started indoors as early as April and then transplanted later to ripen in late summer and early fall.
Pumpkins: A favorite of autumn, pumpkin seeds should be started late in the season, like late May or June. The fruit ripens in October.
Chestnuts: Sometimes added to nutty brown ales, these tree nuts are ripe when they fall, sometime between mid-September and mid-October.
Pecans: These tasty guys ripen between October and December.
*Fruit trees should be planted in the spring if they are bare-root, and in autumn if they are in a container.