When are my hop cones ready to harvest?
Your female hop plant will create cones that we harvest and then use to make beer. But, what date will my cones be ready to pick?
There is no exact date to pick your cones. The cones of the plants of each individual variety, in each hopyard, each year will be ready to harvest on a different date. Each case is a different situation. There is no standard.
The correct time to harvest your cones depends on the maturity of the cones.
When the cones mature, they begin to dry out along with the rest of your plant. Usually we have about five (5) days to harvest when the cones are ‘ripe’.
If you harvest too early, the cones will have less lupulin and smell of grass or weeds. If we harvest too late, the potency of the lupulin will start to degrade with age and the hops will smell like garlic or onion.
Large farms calculate and / or test their hops for what is called ‘dry matter’ in the hop cones. For simplicity, this is basically the percentage of water stored in the cone at any time.
An average dry matter at harvest time, would be about 20-23% moisture. Each variety can be a little different. in order to calculate this, you need scientific machines and you can also do at home, but it is a bit complicated and you need to use a lot of cones. (See tip # 8A)
Fortunately, for small producers there are other ways to know the correct time to harvest your cones.
These tips will help you to know the correct time by several signs:
1. The color of the petals of the cones begins to darken with some of the little tips of the petals turning a brown color.
2. When you see a cone that appears to be ripe, pay attention when you pick it from the plant. If the cone is ready, it should snap off easily. If it is difficult to remove from the plant, the cone is probably not ready.
3. After picking a cone, if you hold the cone on the tip with the two fingers of each hand and open it in halves just like peeling a banana, you can now see the yellowish lupulin inside the cone. This is where most of the oils and alpha and beta acids are inside the cones. This ‘yellow’ powder should appear an almost gold, dark color. If it’s bright and clear, it might be too early. In the last days before the cones are ready, the lupulins changes much darker.
4. If you take one of the cone halves and fold it in half, the ‘bract’ or sprig down the center will snap easily and there you know it’s ready. Otherwise, it will just fold and will not break easily.
5. If you pick up an entire cone and rub it between your fingers it should feel dry and will sound like you’re crumbling paper.
6. If you continue to rub the cone, within 10-15 seconds, the petals should start separating from the bract. In addition, you should now be able to feel the oils and resins on your fingers and your fingers will stick together slightly.
6. Perhaps the most important is the smell of the cone! You should break open a cone every few days and test the sight, feel and smell.
Before they are ready, the cones may have the scent of grass or plants. Once they become ready, they should have the smell of the individual variety, whether floral, citrus, pine, pepper or other. After a cone is past the correct picking time, it may smell oniony or garlicky.
Only after years of experience can farmers know the correct time to harvest their hops just by touch and the smell. That is why they test them. But, with these clues, small growers can get pretty close !
Remember, a plant can have cones that are immature combined with cones that are at the right time and cones that are past ripe.
It is not necessary to harvest all the cones at the same time. Often the lower cones on the plants that are more in the shade take longer to mature. These light green cones are very beautiful. But, they are not ready yet!
A cone that is past the correct time will look very brown and with more open petals. At this point, the cone is useless.
It is also very useful to keep a diary of the important dates of each plant including date you pick every year. In a few years, you may see a pattern that can help.
REMEMBER THIS !!!! Many people harvest very early! This is the biggest mistake of the new hops growers!
Good luck !!