The Hop Adventure – Chapter 1: North Vancouver, 2016

Posted By: David Aiken

I'm David Aiken. I started juggling when I was 13 years old, I started brewing when I was 47 years old. Somehow the two became intertwined.

July 1, 2020

If you adhere to the Reinheitsgebot, or German Purity Law of 1516, (which I don’t btw) then beer can only be made from four ingredients, malt, yeast, water and hops. This is the first chapter of my journey with the last of those ingredients, hops. 

I brewed my first batches of beer in August 2015 and by Christmas of that same year I had jumped down the rabbit hole of brewing and had purchased a three vessel all-grain brewing set-up and was brewing as quickly as my performance schedule would allow. (A side not about being a touring performer and brewer. Without making too much effort, it’s possible to look at a calendar and plan one’s brew days around one’s touring schedule in such a way that upon returning from a gig, it’s time to execute the next step in the production process. So, while you’re away, it’s sort of like time travel and you end up home in the week or two that’s required for the yeast to ferment the wort or dry hop or what-have-you.) I didn’t have anyone showing me what to do or making suggestions or guiding my process, I was just diving in and wallowing in the process and the exploration. I had no clue about what each of the ingredients really contributed to the process, but there was something about the process itself that just appealed to me and I poured myself into learning everything I could by reading and doing. 

Early into 2016, I decided it would be a GREAT IDEA to try my hand at growing hops. We had a veggie garden already, and the property we had at the time in North Vancouver was big enough to allow me to set up a part of the yard so I could grow a few different variety of hops. Some on-line research taught me that hops are propagated by planting a chunk of the plant’s root system called a rhizome and a little more poking around lead me to Crannóg Ales & Hop Farm in Sorrento, BC which sells hop rhizomes in the Spring every year. I sent them an email and put in my order which would eventually be fulfilled in April. 

Hops are a pretty invasive plant, so I knew I was going to have to build a sort of box structure to contain the root balls, especially if I wanted to grow different varieties side-by-side. Step one however was to break ground and prep the soil in the location that would eventually be home to eight rhizomes. Where we lived in North Vancouver must have been a riverbed at some point because everywhere we ‘attempted’ to put in garden beds, we hit rock, lots and lots of rock so I knew I had my work cut out for me and got started on the process of prepping the hop plantation on February 8, 2016. Between tour dates and when the weather co-operated I plugged away on digging down to knee-depth and sifting out all of the rocks in the garden bed, then took our boys’ old sand box (which they had outgrown) dismantled it and used the lumber to create a box structure that I hopped would do the trick. I also built a bit of a structure against the back fence where I could run guide strings as I knew that hops were a vine that naturally wanted to climb.

The hop rhizomes arrived in the third week of April right around the time I finished prepping the hop garden bed’s infrastructure and on the twenty third of that month I took eight little chunks of root and put each in it’s own compartment in the garden. The picture at the top of the page is me looking at the rhizome infusing it with optimism for the many future brew days I hoped to enjoy with the hop cones that it would produce. I really had no clue what I was getting myself into.

By the middle of May the plants had started to break through the ground and I knew I should get guide strings in place for them to climb, so I did just that. I went to the local hardware store and got some jute twin and created a sort of pyramid shaped string structure for the plants to climb. I used the frame at the bottom of the boxes to secure the strings to and then ran them up to the top bar of the structure I had created. I had read that hop plants can grow up to 20 feet or more, but wasn’t sure how much they’d grow in the first year in the ground. A month later, they plants had reached the top of the back fence so I knew I needed to come up with an additional structure to run strings to. Now… I’m not sure if it’s because my wife, Emiko, is originally from Japan or what, but the structure I ended up creating from scrap lumber looked an awful lot like the ‘Torii Gate’ that can be seen at the entrance to shrines in Japan. To me this shape gave me room to run two layers of strings so the vines didn’t bump into each other quite as much. But the structure itself caused my wife to call my hop operation ‘The Hop Shrine.’

While I was away on Summer festival touring dates, Emiko kept sending me images of progress and by the end of July, the hops had indeed started to climb the strings up to the shrine structure. I had labeled each of the hops so I’d get these updates telling me which variety was in the lead in the race to the top of the shrine which just made me giggle and happy. When Emiko sent me an email on August 8 showing me that there were flowers on the hop plants I got really excited because I knew those flowers would turn into the cones that I’d be using in brewing and I suspected we were just weeks away from being able to harvest.

On August 29 I flew home from my Summer festival tour and the hops were indeed ready to harvest. I grabbed a tray and a ladder and got to work and soon filled a tray with hop cones elated that this grand experiment had produced such amazing results. It took a number of days to complete the full harvest during which time I also picked up a food dehydrator to help dry the bounty and a vacuum sealer to property package the hop cones but these details were just logistics moving in the direction of being able to brew with hops that were produced on-site. SO COOL!

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