In Almaty, Kazakhstan, hops grow everywhere: up telephone poles, along fences, swinging between trees. Their cones are fat and thick, and their sweet, soporific smell makes hot afternoons heady.
The hop, Humulus lupulus, is a cold-hardy perennial bine (note, it’s not a vine, because it twines clockwise around its support, rather than sending out tendrils or suckers) famous for imparting the necessary bitter notes in beer. Each spring, soft, new, green shoots emerge, followed (if you have a female plant) by thick, sweet-smelling cones. The cones have antimicrobial properties, so they play a role in brewing, too, as a preservative. By autumn, the plant retreats back into the tough, underground rhizomes, at which point you can cut down any spent foliage.
There’s a lot more to hops than beer, however. In spring, you can eat the young shoots and leaves in salads and as a side veg: they taste good raw or cooked. And the cones are widely used in herbal medicine for their soothing, sedative effect: traditionally, you stuffed a pillow full of cones and bedded down to a deep, restorative sleep.
Since returning from an apple-hunting trip to Kazakhstan last year, I’ve dreamed about growing hops along the fence at the back of my allotment and into the great lime trees behind it. In fact, if I had my way, I’d introduce it up the telephone poles and lamps in my street, too. There’s something rather lovely about a city clothed in potential beer. The simplest way to introduce hops up a tree or fence is to buy a rhizome: you can buy them rooted or unrooted. Plant rooted out over winter, weather permitting; unrooted (often American varieties) will need to wait till spring, between March and April. Hops like humus-rich soil that is soft, deep, moisture-rich and fertile, so add leaf mould, if you have it. They won’t stand being in sodden soil, however, but once established they are fairly drought-tolerant.
You can buy rhizomes online, mostly guaranteed female plants of known varieties that are usually sold to home brewers. Although hops will grow in semi-shade, if you want quality cones, plant them in full sun and provide something stable for them to scramble up. Golden varieties, in particular, work wonderfully against a dark backdrop, for instance when climbing through an evergreen or over ivy. Golden hops (Humulus lupus ‘Aureus’) is the full-sized version (it grows to 6m or so), while ‘Golden Tassels’ is smaller at around 3m.
You can also grow hops from seed, though this a longer route, needing stratification (a period of cold and wet) to kickstart germination. The quickest way is to moisten two sheets of kitchen towel, wring them dry, place the seeds between the sheets, put them in a freezer bag and pop in the fridge; don’t forget to mark it with the date. (You can use damp vermiculite instead, but hop seed is tiny and will be hard to find.) They’ll need six to eight weeks in the fridge, and keep an eye on them because the seed mustn’t be allowed to dry out.
After that, move the bag to a warm spot – around 15-20C will do – and you should see germination within two or three weeks. Carefully prick out the seeds (or cut them from the kitchen towel) and pot on, hardening off to a cold frame outside.
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