On a sunny day last week, Sam Gilbert dug a hole in the backyard of BrewLab SF's headquarters, into which he placed a hops rhizome.
Over the next several months, the rhizome, which looks like a stick with roots poking out of it, will grow vines that will produce a vital component of Gilbert's home-brewed beer.
"Every brewer to some extent dreams of making a beer with their own hops," Gilbert says.
Gilbert, co-founder of the home brewers' collective, joins other dedicated home brewers throughout the Bay Area who have taken their craft to another level by growing their own hops. As home brewing soars in popularity, so does the allure of raising hops, a climbing vine that is inexpensive and easy to grow.
"It comes down to passion," says Ian Dunbar-Hall, who is part of a home brewing group called Euphemia Ales in San Francisco. "One way to extend that passion is to grow your own ingredients. While we don't have the ability to necessarily grow our grain, we can grow our own hops."
San Francisco Brewcraft and Oak Barrel Winecraft in Berkeley report normal sales of rhizomes this year, while MoreBeer in Concord has seen companywide rhizome pre-sales increase about 25 percent compared to last year, says store manager Dave Wonder.
"This has been our biggest year by far," Wonder says.
More than a few members of the Bay Area Mashers home brew club are finally trying their hand at growing hops this year, says president Justin Unverricht.
"I have seen a large increase in people wanting to grow their own hops," he says. "More people are aware of how to do it and there is now a fairly large wealth of information for people who are interested. If you have the space, it's a fun distraction."
Growing your own hops ensures peak freshness compared to the hops home brewers can buy commercially, Gilbert says.
"Everyone kind of prizes having the freshest hops possible in their beer," Gilbert says. "There is no better way to control that than for it to be your own hops."
Chad Gallagher of Berkeley began growing hops because he wanted to be involved in another aspect of the beer-making process. He started four years ago at a time when hops were very expensive because of a hops shortage.
Today, you can find hops rhizomes at home brew stores in the spring for $4-$5, but with hops being a hot commodity, growing your own ensures a steady supply. It can also be difficult to buy fresh hops to make a wet hops beer.
"There are some varieties that are in such demand that many home brew shops and hop distributors ration them out to a few ounces to home brewers at a time," Unverricht says. "Large breweries often have direct deals with the hop farmers themselves to secure access to certain hops, but competition is pretty fierce."
Hops rhizomes produce vines that can reach 20 to 30 feet with plenty of sunlight and water. It takes about three years for a hops plant to fully mature and develop its root system. Gallagher, who grows four hops varieties, has been impressed with how quickly they can grow under the right conditions.
"On a hot day," he says, "they'll grow two to three inches."
But hops need regular maintenance and must be cut down to the ground after each harvest, says James Davids, an enologist with San Francisco Brewcraft.
"It's a pretty crazy plant," Davids says. "After a year or two, it could take over the entire side of your house."
The home brewing supply store sells 10 different hops varieties, but not all grow well in some parts of the Bay Area with its varying microclimates.
"Cascade or Centennial tend to do well whether it's foggy or sunny," Davids says.
Gilbert is growing six or seven hops varieties, including Cascade, Centennial, Nugget, Goldings and Fuggles. They are a mix of rhizomes and mature plants donated by a BrewLab brewer, all of which he hopes will produce enough hops to brew roughly 15 to 20 gallons of beer.
Like many home brewers who grow their own hops, he'll make a wet hops beer. Since hops have a very short shelf life once they are harvested, they are usually dried or pelletized. Gilbert will instead add the just-harvested hops to the boil kettle to impart a fresh, grassy flavor.
"It's more seasonal than any other beer," says Dunbar-Hall.
Dunbar-Hall grows 32 plants with eight hops varieties on his family's property north of Napa, which he says would produce more beer than he and his two partners could ever drink. They'll use some of the hops to make a wet hops double IPA, and will give the rest to other home brewers or possibly team up with a local brewery for a wet hops beer.
Keep an eye out for wet hops beers on tap at local brew pubs around the harvest season from August through late September, he says. Sierra Nevada also makes Northern and Southern Hemisphere Harvest Wet Hop Ales.
With home brewed wet hops beers, there can be a lot of guesswork because unlike commercially-available hops, which are lab-tested, it is harder to determine the bitterness of backyard hops.
"Personally, I'm excited about making a beer completely with my own hops so I think I'll play that roulette and see what happens," Gilbert says. "Hopefully I'll get something that isn't too bitter to drink or not bitter enough."