It’s no surprise that the recent flood of small craft breweries in Ontario has led to the rise of related industries. Escarpment Labs in Guelph is Canada’s first liquid yeast lab, and companies like Harvest Hop and Malt and Barn Owl Malt offer Ontario grown grains. Hop growers are popping up all over the province, too, but breweries have been slower to make the switch to local hops, which are used to add bitterness and aroma to beer.
The challenges of going local are very real. Hops are terroir driven, meaning that elements like topography and climate play a significant role in the development of the crop. Cascade hops from Oregon are noticeably different from those grown in Australia. Same deal for those grown in Waterloo region.
This can be problematic for brewers who are after the telltale grapefruit characteristic of the American variety. On a more technical level, it can also impact the amount of alpha and beta acids in the cones, which affect bitterness and aroma. When it comes to brewing, consistency is key. Thankfully, there are workarounds.
Culum Canally, worker/owner at Together We’re Bitter Co-operative Brewing, explains their system for managing quality: “As far as consistency of the hops are concerned, we will use local hops to a greater or lesser degree and blend them in with hops from more established growing regions like the Pacific Northwest to ensure that we maintain a consistent flavour profile in our beer.”
Most literature on hops suggests that it takes about three years for plants to mature to the point that the cones are suitable for use in brewing. But with nature involved, that certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule. As an example, Kyle Wynette from the Tavistock Hop Company points to the difficulty that growers have had in getting the Centennial varietal established on this side of the continent. While his alpha acids are consistently within range, yields have been low. Considering that Ontario is home to over 200 operating breweries, with another 100 in the planning stages, small yields are problematic.
The Ontario Hop Growers Association lists 61 member farms in their directory. Unfortunately, the listing doesn’t provide details about the age or size of most farms, so it’s hard to get an accurate sense of what’s really out there. Of those growers that do list their acreage, many are farming less than a few acres of crop. In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, for comparison, hop farming accounts for over 40,000 acres in the state of Washington alone. We’ve got some growing to do.
With 12 acres planted and more planned, Wynette’s strategy is to work with fewer brewers to make sure that the supply is consistent in terms of quality and availability. This plan speaks to the needs of brewers like Kevin Freer, who emphasizes the challenge of sourcing local hops in a province where the hop supply just can’t meet the demand.
Speaking about his desire to increase the use of local hops at Block Three Brewing Co, where he is head brewer, Freer mentioned the advantage of being able to work closely with growers who are able to plan for the needs of the brewery and tailor their growth accordingly.
This seems to be the key. Local growers offer the kind of personal relationship that can’t be had with hop suppliers south of the border or across the ocean. Wynette and the crew at Tavistock deliver all of their hops personally, and stress the importance of developing close relationships with their customers.
But change has been slow. For the most part, local hops are still something of a novelty, to be used on special occasions and with a specific purpose in mind. Breweries like Innocente and Abe Erb have partnered up with local growers in the past, for example, to brew harvest-season favourite wet hopped ales.
In November, Together We’re Bitter partnered up with the Tavistock Hop Co. to develop a heritage beer that honours the history of hop growing in Waterloo Region. They were able to use hops that Wynette propagated from more than 100-year-old plants found on the site of the former Preston hopyards, a farm that was active prior to Prohibition.
Later this month, breweries from across Ontario will participate in the fifth annual Great Ontario-Hopped Craft Beer Competition, which partners them up with a local grower. Among others, Block Three, Wellington and Elora Brewing Co. are slated to compete.
One-off brews are great for raising awareness about local hops but, if the industry is going to succeed, there will need to be a bigger commitment on the part of craft brewers. Thankfully, a few breweries have already taken the plunge. TWB uses Tavistock Cascade and Centennial in a few of their staple hoppier offerings, for example, while Wellington Brewery’s Kickin’ Back Dry-Hopped Session Ale is made exclusively with hops from Clear Valley Hops in Nottawa.
Looking ahead, it’s all about balance. Growers need to take the required time to establish a viable and consistent crop, while breweries need to show support by starting to move away from their reliance on imported hops. If everyone plays their part, we should soon be able to attribute the bitterness of our favourite local IPAs to nearby growers.