Once you are comfortable with the brewing process, it is tempting to experiment with growing your own barley and hops for beer making. Barley is an annual grain that is easy to grow and harvest. Once planted, hops will keep growing for many years. It will die back completely in winter and come back again the following spring. Hops give beer its bitter flavor and different varieties add their own signature to the brew.
To grow a crop of barley, you need fertile soil with good drainage and neutral pH. Plant the seed 10 to 12 weeks before first frost. Where winters are mild, you can plant barley six weeks before the first expected frost date. Rake the surface of the planting area to rough it up and plant the barley 1 inch deep in rows 1 to 2 inches apart. Use the back of the rake to firm the planting area and keep the soil moist until shoots emerge.
Find a spot with well-drained soil and full sun exposure for your hops crop. Hops need support, so build a trellis that is at least 10 feet tall. These exuberant climbers are grown from rhizomes and one or two plants should be plenty for hobby brewers. To prepare the soil, dig a hole about 12 inches deep and 18 inches across. Fill it with well-rotted compost and plant the hop rhizomes in the hole. Keep the soil well watered and mulch to discourage weeds to allow the plants to develop a strong root system the first year. After the second year, you can begin to harvest your hops.
Barley is ready to harvest when the seed heads have turned brown with a few green streaks. Cut the stalks close to the ground with a scythe and gather into bundles secured with string or rubber bands. Hang the bundles up to dry completely. To remove the grain from the stalks, bang the bundles on the side of a clean bucket, barrel or garbage can. To separate the grains from the chaff, move the grain back and forth between two shallow bowls and let the wind blow the debris away. Hops are ready to harvest when the heads are light green and feel like paper.