It's been an occasionally strenuous few months of maintenance, but now is the time when it all becomes worthwhile. I always feel like it's too early in the year for this, but mid-July seems to be the time that the majority of hop cones reach maturity, at least in central Illinois. Results may vary depending on location.
To determine if cones are ripe for the plucking, look for the following characteristics.
First, they will begin to fade from a vibrant green to a more subdued yellowish hue. They'll also produce reddish brown hairs near the bottom of the cone.
Finally, they'll begin to open up like a flower blooming, because that's what's happening. They're doing this because at this stage of their development they're essentially the vegetal equivalent of randy teenagers looking to fuck everything that moves. However, much like an overprotective father, we've arranged things so as to make this nearly impossible, and being stationary, they lack the capacity to sneak out the upstairs window or tell us they're spending the night at their friend's house.
When they look like they're begging for it, gently squeeze the cones between your finger and thumb. If they spring immediately back into their natural shape upon release, they're not ready. If on the other hand they remain flattened and only slowly return to a conical shape, if at all, it's time to harvest.
Prior to the birth of my second child, I was more judicious about checking each cone for optimum ripeness, and I recommend doing so if you have the time. These days, I'm lucky to have an hour every other evening to dedicate to my entire garden during the week, so once most of the cones I pinch remain flat on a particular plant, off they go. The cones pictured above were picked immediately after posing for that photograph, for example.
When picking, simply pinch the top of the cone(s) and pull them off. Don't worry about pulling a bit of stem or a few leaves with them. The hop pellets you've been using are machine harvested and processed, and virtually guaranteed to contain more leaves and stems than anything you can hand pick.
I've completed the primary harvest for all six hills at this point with a total yield of 49 ounces, just over half a pound per hill. This almost doubles last year's harvest, which was about 1.75 pounds. I'll still be picking through mid-September, but probably won't get much more than another half pound.
I'm starting to suspect that there's an every other year aspect to the yield for each particular plant, because the top performers last year were the least productive this year and vice versa. That could be simply the inherent randomness of life, though. Time will tell. A much more interesting discovery was that something that I'm reasonably certain was a colony of Indian meal moths, or at least their larvae, infested every single plant. They were tiny white worms with black heads that took up residence in the cones and wove small webs around them.
I've never seen anything like this before, and I've never heard or read of such a pest preferring hops. Mites and Japanese beetles I've fought off before, but this was entirely new. On the plus side, it probably only cost me a half ounce or so, maybe 30 cones. Research project for the autumn/winter: how to kill these damn things. Preferably without resorting to chemical pesticides.
All in all, it's been quite a bit of work, with a bit more on the way, but at least I had help.