June 25, 2014

Hop growers on board with local ingredients

As published in Country Routes

Interest in fresh, locally-grown food – rather than the long-distance industrial variety – has spilled over into the beer business, prompting some farmers to try their hand at growing hops.

Jay Mowat on the Ninth Line, an advocate of local food, has done a planting of Ontario Bertwell Hops and is willing to invest the time needed to produce a solid first crop.

Jay Mowat of Erin prepares to plant his hop rhizomes.

“It takes three years for the plants to mature – I may get five or six pounds of dried flowers,” said Mowat, pounding stakes in a large square. Hops are generally grown in sunny areas from rhizomes, horizontal stems that send out roots and shoots.

The bushy hop vines (called bines) can be directed to grow along heavy twine, running from the stakes to a central pole, creating a pyramid-shaped trellis.

Hops are a crucial beer ingredient, with different hop varieties affecting the flavor, aroma and stability of the product, acting as an anti-bacterial agent and balancing the sweetness of malted barley with a level of bitterness.

Mowat got his rhizomes and inspiration for the project from entrepreneur Mike Driscoll of Guelph, who has been in the hop business for eight years and is encouraging new growers. He operates Harvest Hop & Malt, and grows his hops at Ignatius Farm on Hwy. 6.

He says Ontario once produced its own beer ingredients, but the Prairies took over with a better supply of barley, and the local hop industry collapsed in the 1920s after some bad crop years. Hop producers in Europe and the Pacific Northwest region of the US have dominated the market, but there are now 30 growers active in Ontario.

“The local food movement is driving the resurgence of hop growing,” said Driscoll, who has also set up a micro-malting operation, supplied by local barley crops.

“People are looking at where it comes from and the miles involved. Brewers are looking for ways to differentiate themselves. Brewers should be promoting local ingredients, and beer drinkers should ask brewers if they use local ingredients.”

Hops can be used fresh, with same-day delivery to the brewer, or dried for later use. Large-scale operations dry the flowers to 5% moisture, grind them up and form them into easy-to-ship pellets. Driscoll prefers to dry them to 50%, and then freeze them in bales.

Small hop farmers have no hope of tapping into the industrial scale production of the major beer companies. Not only are the quantities too small, but also it would be impossible to meet the consistency requirements of the big brewers. Smaller breweries, and their customers, have a greater interest in variety, said Driscoll.

“In the last 25 years we have had more adventurous and intelligent beer drinkers. They are more knowledgeable and willing to appreciate variations,” he said.