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Grow Your Own Beer

Hops purchased at PDX Brew Exchange

Recently, I received a home brewing kit for my birthday from a dear friend in California.  I tried it out and I am now officially hooked on making fresh, full-flavored beer from simple ingredients that I can share with my family and friends.  (Warning:  I never knew I had so many friends until I finished this first 5 gallon batch.)

Like most hobbies, home brewing has a cult-like following of passionate people, each attempting to out brew (and out nerd) the other.  Brewing is relatively easy.  There are a good number of web sites and blogs out there that have plenty of information on brewing so we won’t replicate that information here.

However, as I was putting together my first batch I couldn’t help but wonder how hard it would be to grow (or gather) some of the ingredients myself.  What follows is a brief synopsis of what I found.

If you are going to try this, you will be in for a few challenges and new experiences, to say the least.  I think Mark Twain’s famous quote applies here: “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

What’s in a bottle?

First off, beer has four ingredients; water, yeast, malt and hops.  Yes, you can add all sorts of ingredients to the wort (the disgusting looking stew that eventually yields beer) but this is beer in its more pure and basic form.   So let’s start with the two first ingredients.

 

Water

A river runs through it

It may sound silly but if you want to go to the home brew extreme, you can collect rainwater or gather water from a local stream or lake and purify it for brewing.  Since the internet often has a short supply of common sense, we’ll call out just a few of the normal cautions go with this:  Don’t brew without purifying your water first to kill microbes; don’t collect rainwater from your roof; understand your local watersheds and contaminants within; don’t brew with long standing water; and so on.  If you’re really into this, check some of the other sites for your ultra-local experience.

Yeast

Brewer’s yeast

Yes, you heard right.  You can grow your own yeast from what’s in the air all around us.  As frightening as that might seem, some beers have unique flavors that are tied directly to the strain’s hometown.  Since I do not have the “professional microbiological training” to go into detail, I will simply refer you to this site in the event you want to learn more at the appropriately named site, morebeer.com:

http://morebeer.com/brewingtechniques/library/backissues/issue2.3/king.html

Now we’ll move into the next two ingredients that are less problematic: barley and hops.

Barley

Barley field

Barley’s tough!  It is a main ingredient because of the rich sugar it contains:  a feast for yeast to eat up and ferment the beer.  You need lots of the stuff, and that means you’ll need space.  Over at Homebrewtalk.com, a thread indicated you would need a 1 yard wide row by 16 yards long to yield 16 lbs. of malted barley (dry weight).  Given that I used in my first batch about 12 lbs. of malted barley, you’d get about 5 gallons of beer form that crop.  To me, a small suburban backyard gardener with precious little space, I think I’ll continue purchasing it locally for now.  More info on growing and malting barley can be found at these two links:

Growing:  http://www.homebrewtalk.com/f36/growing-barley-wheat-home-115557/

Malting:  http://beersmith.com/blog/2009/12/05/malting-barley-grain-at-home/

Hops

Sweet smelling hops

Finally!  Here is a crop I think I can actually grow and will begin working on this month.  Fortunately, the Pacific Northwest has ideal conditions for growing this key and flavorful and fragrant ingredient.  I have talked with some gardeners who say these vines grow like weeds, growing as much as a foot a day during growth spurts.  A quick check at www.usahops.com yields this information:

Hop growing in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States is a proud tradition dating back to the late 19th century. The majority of the American hop industry has been and continues to be family owned and operated farms. Ideal growing conditions and highly skilled producers make the Pacific Northwest region of the United States home to some of the finest hops in the world.

Hops on a support structure

To grow hops, I’ll briefly summarize the process.  For a more detailed description refer again to Morebeer.com here:

http://morebeer.com/brewingtechniques/library/backissues/issue2.3/montell.html

  1. Find some space!  Although not quite as much space is needed as with barley, these vines grow vertically so you’ll need some sort of a pole/twine system.  One site even showed an old swing set being re-purposed for – and engulfed by – hops.
  2. Pick a spot.  Direct sunlight and well drained soil is key.
  3. Plant them.  If you are reading this article now in October, you will need to wait (with me) until the spring before May.  However, you can begin conditioning your soil now with lime and other key ingredients.
  4. Prune the runners.  Only the strong should survive.

If all goes well you’ll have a successful crop … in year two.  During the first year, the plant is establishing its root system.  But fret not!  Once established and if all goes well the site states, “Healthy vines can produce 1-21/2 pounds of dried flowers per plant.”  That is a lot of hops, considering the average batch requires two 4oz bags that cost anywhere between $5.00 and $8.00.  The harvested flowers can be placed in a seal-a-meal bag and frozen until needed for brewing.

Let us know in the comments if you have any experience or tips collecting or growing any of the ingredients.

 

 

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