Hops are usually ready to pick by late August or early September depending on where you live. Select a random cone and cut it vertically. A ripe cone will have yellow dust (lupulin) in the center and it should be pungently hoppy. Another way to tell is to snap a hop cone in half. If it breaks like a carrot would, you are ready to harvest. If it is still very spongy, then you need to wait. Only pick the cones that look similar to the one you tested because not all of the cones will be ready at the same time.
When you have enough cones, or you just want to move on, you need to dry the hops. A food dehydrator works well for this, but read your instructions first. You don't want to over dry or burn your hops. It usually takes about 9-12 hours for most hops to dry. A cheap alternative for those that don't have a food dehydrator is to use a window screen. Place a screen on anything that can allow air to flow above and below the screen. Place the screen in the sun, and add your hops on top of the screen. The air and the heat from the sun will dry out the hops for you. This process can take several days, so make sure to bring the hops inside if you expect rain.
The hops can turn a light shade of yellow during dehydration, which is pretty normal and won't hurt the flavor of the hops.
Once your hops are dehydrated, you want to make sure that you store them properly. If you have a food sealer where you can vacuum out the air and make the packaging airtight, you are in good shape. For those without a food sealer, a simple zip lock bag will work well.
- Place your hops in the bag, get as much air out as possible, and seal.
- Place the bag in the freezer if you do not plan on using for awhile.
- Keep the bag away from light, as this can cause the hops to fade and lose flavor.
- Hops can store in a freezer for up to a year.
There is a new trend to use hops that are fresh off the vine. You don't get anything fresher than that! Make sure you use a recipe designed around using "wet hops" because there is a flavor difference. Try an internet search to find recipes that call for hops that are not dehydrated.