I'm sure many of you will agree: there are few things finer, really, than spending an afternoon doing battle with weeds in the garden on a hot, sunny day... followed by stretching out in a chair and opening an ice-cold beer. There's something about this ritual that says, your work here is done. Put up your feet. Brewski for yewski.
One thing that interests me about beer, besides the fact that it's beer, is that we so often forget it's an agricultural product, that it's made from grains and plants. It's also something that we're perfectly happy letting someone else make for us even if they don't make it very well, like bread. Some people do like to brew for themselves and their friends, and it's gotten easier to do thanks to home brewing kits that are relatively easy to find at brew shops or on the internet.
But what about using local ingredients in this process? Brewing beer relies heavily on grains like malted barley and wheat for its substance and its strength; neither of these grains are something you see growing amongst the tomatoes found in a home garden. However — part of brewing also involves hops, a vigorous perennial vine showcasing extremely cute little cones of flavor that make beer taste really, really good. As it happens, hops are grown pretty easily. A person could grow a few vines with very little trouble.
But... why would anyone want to? you might ask. I don't brew my own beer. I don't even drink beer! Well, neither does Jill Miller, one of my neighbors — but she grows hops. She LOVES hops, and it has nothing to do with their role in brewing beer.
Jill: I really have no interest in brewing beer, but there are enough people in the neighborhood that are, and if they want my hops, they can have them. Otherwise, they're just decorative!
In addition to supplying neighborhood brewers with hops, Jill has other reasons for wanting to raise them.
Jill: This spring, it was just so warm, they just popped right up and spread all over... they're like a weed. They grow so fast — I love it! That's another reason I wanted them — for shade. I'm hoping to get a trellis in and train them to grow over it in the future.
Hops are resource-hungry. They require a lot of sun, water, nutrients, and well-drained soil, so they grow well here in central Illinois. They've been grown in southern Wisconsin and upstate New York commercially, but nowadays most domestic hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest. And brewers are starting to take an interest in locally-grown organic hops for their operations.
Samantha Carlson is a 2nd year graduate student in Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois, and somewhere along the line, her interest in hops went beyond having a cold one after some yard work. Their crazy growing habit got her attention — hop vines can grow to be 30 feet high and can send roots down as far as 15 feet — as well as their companionability with perennial grains and perennial prairie grasses. Hops' deep rooting habit got her thinking about carbon sequestration and soil stabilization, both of which are hugely ecologically important, and she's working on ways to get some of this research out of the test plots and into everyday environments. Obviously, it's not just about beer for her. She does point out that commercial production of hops for a small brewery doesn't require a whole lot of land — one acre can host 1200 plants. That's a lot of hops — 1500 pounds by the time the acre is in full swing in about four years. And she thinks that beer made locally with home-sourced ingredients could help get consumers connected with other local food and food culture.
There are the folks for whom growing hops is completely about beer. Some home brewers have become more interested in growing their own hops in recent years thanks to a worldwide hop shortage caused by various blights and pests. If a crop failure occurs in Germany or New Zealand, for example, where hops are a huge export crop, it's felt here by brewers of all kinds in that hops are harder to find at specialty stores or online — in some cases, brewers are restricted as to the quantities they can buy — and they get way more expensive: In 2008, the price of hops increased from $5 to $32 per pound. The hop shortage has also been helped along by the fact that so-called "super-hoppy" beers are extraordinarily trendy right now. Walk into your local specialty shop — or even the grocery store — and you'll see a zillion beers with names like "Hop Stoopid" and "Modus Hoperandi" and "Hopsickle". Hops add some bitter flavor to beer — it can be quite citrusy and piney and refreshing and it's definitely delicious. But it takes a lot of hops to make those beers.
It was this shortage, combined with interests in localism and gardening and self-reliance, that put Joan Jach and Jason Thomason on the road to adding hops to their large backyard garden in Champaign. Jason started brewing beer with a friend a couple of years ago, using the hop pellets that he bought from a supplier. Joan, however, saw an opportunity.
Jason: Joan, my wife, came up with the idea. She was like, what about growing them? So she started reading about growing hops and about different kinds of hops to grow here. Then she ordered the rhizomes and said, we're gonna grow some hops!
Joan: I decided that we had to grow our own hops because I had heard about the hops shortage and I thought, you know, it would be more self-sufficient. I like the idea of being able to provide everything for food and drink in your own yard. So I ordered four rhizomes, two each of two kids, and I planted them last spring, and this year they're double what they were last year. It's been really fun watching them twine up and get really long.
This year marks the first time Joan and Jason will be harvesting and using their own hops in beer production — if the Japanese beetles don't get them first. Jason says he's in the process of figuring out what to do with the hops once they've been harvested and dried. He's not sure how much using their fresh, backyard hops will matter flavor-wise, since they've never done it before. That first batch will be an experiment.
A potentially very tasty experiment.
In My Backyard can be heard on Friday afternoons at 2:50 PM on WILL-AM 580, and is available online at http://will.illinois.edu/agriculture/inmybackyard/.