BC craft brewers turn to home-grown organic hops that reflect the local terroir
Matt Phillips plucks a bright green hops cone from the vine and peels back its sticky, paper-thin petals to reveal a set of tiny yellow lupulin glands. He rolls the tip of his thumbs across one of the pollen-like sacs, releasing a complex aroma that’s equal parts citrus, pine forest and cannabis, with just a hint of freshly brewed beer.
“These are Cascades,” he points out, noting that the pungent variety grows particularly well in BC’s southern coastal region and was developed in Yakima, Washington. The owner of Victoria-based Phillips Brewing Co. notes that hops are a close cousin of both marijuana and stinging nettles.
“The only thing they’re good for is making beer,” he says. “It would be a shame to do anything else with them.”
It’s a crisp fall morning on a Saanich Peninsula acreage about 20 kilometres north of Victoria and Phillips, with his assistant, Bill Stuart, and landowner Vic Davies, are hard at work harvesting a small but coveted crop of organically grown hops.
examine a hops cone.
One by one they tote plastic pails brimming with fragrant hops into Davies’s garage to dry on a series of large window screens. Once they’re dried, they’ll be vacuum-sealed and hauled back to Phillips’s brewery to add flavour to a batch of all-organic beer.
“Hopefully the beer we make from these will showcase some distinct Vancouver Island flavours,” Phillips says. “This gives us something more local, with more of a connection with the community where the beer is produced.”
BC's hops industry, then and now
Sixty years ago, the sight of workers harvesting hops in the fall was commonplace in BC, especially in the Fraser Valley, where as many as 4,000 seasonal labourers were needed to pick more than 1,600 acres that were under cultivation when the industry peaked in the late 1940s.
But today on the Saanich Peninsula, a dozen years after a prolonged price slump drove the province’s once-thriving hops industry to extinction, a fresh crop of locally grown hops is an exceedingly rare commodity.
Phillips is one of a growing number of BC microbrewers who, driven by record-high prices and unstable supplies in recent years, are seeking partnerships with local farmers to grow the essential beer-making herb on contract.
BC’s hops industry came to a crashing halt in 1996 with the last commercial harvest on the Lower Mainland. By then, the province’s major corporate-owned breweries were buying cheaper hops almost exclusively from Washington state’s rapidly expanding and heavily subsidized hops industry.
BC growers also suffered from disease and pest damage, the result of years of “mono-cropping” – planting single varieties over large areas using the same rootstock, a practice that weakens hops’ genetic resistance.
“You also had new high-potency varieties and higher yields per acre, so the major breweries didn’t need to use as much and less acreage was being planted,” Phillips explains.
But just as commercial hops farming in BC was dying, province’s emerging craft brewing sector created a new but undeveloped market for locally grown hops.
“When the craft brewing industry started, it was really hard to get hops at all because the big guys had them all,” Phillips says. “It forced a lot of us to get real creative about how we secure our supplies.”
The profit margin
When he founded Phillips Brewing Co. in 2001, Phillips considered the logistics of buying a piece of land and growing his own hops, but realized it would be too costly and complicated. However, as hops production shrank and stockpiles dwindled, prices began to rebound, culminating in a worldwide hops crisis in 2007, when dried, preserved hops were selling for upwards of $30 a pound.
Farmers took notice, and slowly local supplies began to reappear on the market. “We’re working with several growers on Vancouver Island and the mainland,” Phillips says. “Eventually we’d like to source all our hops locally.”
When Davies acquired his root cuttings last winter – from a friend on Salt Spring Island whose barn was overgrown with the plant – commercial production was the last thing on his mind. Last summer, with a healthy crop maturing on his vines, he read a story about Phillips’s struggle to find local sources of hops and decided to give the Victoria brewery a call.
“I thought ‘here’s a young guy; he’s got the fire in his belly and he’s working to go 100 per cent local, so I gave him a call,” Davies recalls.
Surveying the acre and a half of grapevines in front of his house, Davies estimates the same land could produce at least two thousand pounds of hops a season. With Phillips offering to pay $16 a pound, a bumper crop could fetch more than $30,000.
“That certainly makes it more profitable than growing grapes,” Davies says. “Next year, I’m hoping to triple the number of vines… and if I can triple that the year after that, we’ll have a nice sized crop.”
Supporters of the BC hops revival
Among the avid supporters of BC’s hops revival is Sean Hoyne, brewmaster at the Canoe Club, a waterfront brewpub and restaurant and a few blocks from the gleaming new Phillips bottling plant in Victoria. A hands-on craftsman who is constantly tinkering with his recipes, Hoyne is eager to forge relationships with local hops farmers who can offer a secure supply of less common varieties that have been scarce in recent years.
“Microbreweries need small quantities of a much wider variety of hops because we’re not adverse to experimentation,” says Hoyne, draining the spent mash from a stainless steel kettle of Winter Gale, an extra-strong seasonal ale with 8.5 per cent alcohol.
“We make beer for the flavour of it, not for the shareholders of the board of directors.”
Crash course in craft brewing
To illustrate the point, Hoyne pours samples of the pub’s three most popular beers and offers a crash course in the creative use of hops in craft brewing. The Red Canoe Lager, light in body and colour with bold hops overtones, is more reminiscent of a European pilsner than your average store-bought Canadian lager. It’s a distinct taste that relies on four different varieties of European hops – Saaz, Hersbrucker in the initial brewing stage, Noble and Spaltz for the finish – all of which are imported from Europe via brokers on the West Coast.
“I like to refer to it as depth of hop character, not just a way of adding bitterness,” Hoyne says. “It all about balancing the sweetness of the malt with the bitterness of the hops.”
The Siren Song Pale Ale is a darker and more subtle beer “bordering on the malty edge,” he says, with a “slight hops nose” provided by two British varieties, Goldings and Fuggles.
The River Rock Bitter, a classic English-style brew favoured by regulars from Victoria’ British ex-pat community, combines the complex nuttiness of a heavier ale with the clean bite of a standard lager, owing to the use of Challenger hops that have been used to make bitter in England for centuries.
Crannog Ales co-owner
The state of the hops industry
Hoyne looks forward to the day when he can buy all his specialty hops from local producers.
“When prices skyrocketed a couple of years ago, the availability of certain varieties disappeared completely for a while,” he says. “It’s only a matter of time before we rebuild the hops industry here locally. We’d like to buy local because there’s a much smaller carbon footprint.”
For the moment, most BC hops producers are hobbyists like Davies or small-scale farmers who have planted a few hundred vines on an experimental basis. But a handful, like Mission resident Rick Rindero, have decided the time is right to resume production on a larger scale.
Rindero, who has a day job with Fraser River Pile and Dredge, planted an acre and a half of hops on the “back half” of his parents’ farm in Lillooet in 2008. Encouraged by the enthusiastic response from microbrewers, he bought an additional 10 acres nearby and plans to convert the entire property to hops production.
Once the operation is up and running, he plans to quit his day job, move back home, and farm hops full-time. “A couple of years ago, a friend of mine happened to mention the world ‘shortage,’ and sort of became obsessed with it,” he says. “There used to be a big hops farm on the plateau in Lillooet. It was gone by the ’60s but some of the buildings are still there.”
However, large-scale hops farming is an ambitious undertaking that requires a hefty investment not just in land, but equipment and buildings as well. Since harvesting hops by hand is labour-intensive, Rindero has invested $30,000 in a mechanical harvester – one of only two in the province.
To ensure his crops are properly dried to prevent spoilage, Rindero is also planning to build what’s known as an “oast house,” patterned after the cone-shaped brick barns that have been used to cure hops in Europe for centuries.
And while many producers choose to sell whole hops, Rindero has also bought a “pelletizer” to chop and form his crop into compressed bricks that look like leaf-green hockey pucks. “I’m not going to say how much I spent on the pelletizer – too much,” he says, adding that he’s decided to go with full vacuum packing and sealing.
Rindero’s research also indicated that, despite growing demand from craft brewers, organic hops are in especially short supply in BC As a result, he’s planning to make the entire operation 100 per cent organic, right down to the all-natural untreated wood he’s bought for the trellises he’ll install on his new farm this winter.
This fall, Rindero spent dozens of hours calling microbrewers across the province and had little trouble finding buyers for his crop. “The response has been quite phenomenal,” he reports. “Everything I have this year is already sold.”
The obstacle in boosting local supply
Rindero’s hefty investment in processing and packaging equipment underlines one significant obstacle faced by brewers seeking more local supply.
Mike Kelly, owner of Nelson Brewing, an all-organic brewery in the Kootenays, says the number of people calling to offer him locally grown hops has increased in the last coupe of years. But his enthusiasm is always tempered by concerns about proper packaging and preservation. “We can get whole hops but they don’t last as long. We need them to be packaged to certain specifications,” he says.
Roots of the hops resurgence
The roots of BC’s hops-growing revival can be traced directly to Brian MacIsaac and Rebecca Kneen, owners of Crannog Ales in Sorrento. When they started their farm-based, all-organic brewery in 1999, Kneen recalls, “there were no organic hops produced anywhere in North America.”
Uncomfortable with the carbon footprint inherent in importing organic hops from New Zealand, the couple started growing their own hops in 2000.
Realizing there was little information available on organic hops production, they also co-wrote an instructional booklet called Small Scale Hops Growing Manual, which has become the unofficial bible for those who would follow in their footsteps.
In the ensuing nine years, Kneen (pictured at top) has been a one-person advocate for the local hops industry, supplying rootstock and acting as an advisor to most of the province’s new community of hops farmers. Crannog itself now has exclusive access to about 10 acres of locally grown organic hops – nine of which are being farmed on contract by new growers in the region. Local producers now supply about 80 per cent of Crannog’s hops, and Kneen estimates that 100 per cent self-sufficiency is two or three years away.
The idea is catching on across the country, she says: “What I’m seeing across Canada is where there are clusters of breweries there are clusters of hops growers to supply those breweries.”
The ecological impact
But for Kneen, local sourcing is less about the quality or the cost of the hops and more about environmental responsibility. “I wouldn’t say there’s any lesser or greater quality with organic hops. It’s more about the way the hops are grown,” she says. “The major difference is ecological. We shouldn’t have to import our hops from New Zealand.”
Gazing across the fertile fields (of the agricultural land reserve) south of his acreage, Vic Davies sees visions of the past in the future of hops farming on the Saanich Peninsula.
“Some of the first vines in BC were planted in this area,” he says. “We’re seeing the resurgence of a very old industry. It’d be nice to see a couple of coast houses out there someday.”