Hops in Transition (or what Caitlyn Jenner has to do with our hop yard)

A female flower, which will eventually produce a cone.

A female bloom, which will eventually produce a cone. 

Downy mildew is indeed taking its toll on our hop yard. We are looking at significantly reduced yields this season as we continue to do what we can to control the outbreak- clear the bottom three feet of the vines, spray with organic methods, and other suggestions from the great folks at University of Vermont Extension.

Our attempts to manage the mildew has led to many anxiety-inducing conversations with my father as we ride the roller coaster of days when the growing bines appear strong, then sickly, then back and forth again. Our hop yard of Centennials, Nuggets and Williamettes is also under duress and, as such, is starting to undergo some unpredicted changes.

An interesting phenomena (manha) can occur when a hop yard is stressed: the cone-producing female plants can start to take on male characteristics and even turn completely male. Whoa! Transgender hops. Though it’s been a long overdue banner year for the LGBT community (with room for more progress to be made), topped off recently with an inspiring speech by the remarkable and stunning Caitlyn Jenner, I’m not so thrilled about our hop yard’s decisions to transition. Allow me to explain.

Male hop blooms.

Male hop blossoms

A plant exhibiting male flowers and a female cone.

A plant exhibiting male flowers and a female cone.

Note: I have yet to find an extensive, thorough source of information detailing this female-male transition, but have investigated via online blogs (Great Lakes Hops, Puterbaugh Farms Hops Direct) and forums (American Homebrewers Association). 

Male flowers, though beautiful to the eye, are useless to the beer making process. They bloom and then wither away, and if left to pollinate and fertilize the female plants in the field, will result in inferior quality cones on the females. There is certainly some metaphor here. The best, and really only, option is to destroy the male plants, cutting them down and yanking out the roots. Again, insert appropriate metaphor.

In some cases, the hop plants are male from the start when a stray male rootstock makes it into a batch when setting up the yard. At other times, female plants turn into male if a hop yard is in distress from something like, say, downy mildew. We have found several male plants this year in locations that were previously cone-producing females and so, presumably, are facing the latter situation. I sure hope that the sleepless nights I’ve had worrying about the combination of downy mildew and transgender hops does not cause the same effect in my own life. I can’t really afford a new wardrobe right now.

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