Craft beer trend creates a new craving for Canadian hops

With more craft breweries popping up in this country and the push for local and fresh ingredients, more Canadians are taking a shot at growing hops.

‘There’s something about having local and fresh,’ brewmaster says

Brian Pearson left his job on Bay Street last year to start a hops farm north of Barrie, Ont. ( Laura MacNaughton/CBC)

After working for 25 years on Toronto's Bay Street, Brian Pearson made a truly drastic career change. He quit his job in finance to become a farmer.

"At the age of 50, I looked at life and realized that life is too short, so what's the next thing for me to do?" said Pearson. 

He bought a piece of land across the road from where he grew up north of Barrie, Ont., did a tremendous amount of research and turned his love for craft beer into a full-time job growing its essential ingredient — hops.

"I took a chance and planted some last year and they flourished," said Pearson, whose operation is called Cahiague Farms.

It takes about three years for a hops plant to reach full maturity. (Laura MacNaughton/CBC)

Momentum is brewing for hops growing

According to the Ontario Hop Growers' Association, hops haven't been grown commercially in Canada in great volumes since about the 1950s. As a result, Canadian craft brewers have been forced to import almost 99 per cent of their hops, primarily from the U.S. northwest and Europe.

But with more craft breweries popping up in this country and the push for local and fresh ingredients, more Canadians are taking a shot at growing hops.

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs estimates there are currently 339 acres of hops being farmed in Canada. Two years ago, there were only 255 acres.

But growers like Pearson are finding it certainly isn't a cheap crop to produce.

"Anything to do with farming is expensive. These trellis systems are 18 feet (5.5 metres) in the air, there's the cost of labour to install that, there's the cost of picking equipment, you need an oast house to dry out the hops," Pearson said in an interview with CBC News.   

At the end of the day, if I didn't think the financial metrics were there, I wouldn't be doing it- Brian Pearson, hops farmer

Now in his second year of growing, Pearson has six acres on the go, but hasn't sold any hops yet. It takes about three years for the plant to reach full maturity.

He admits the money he's invested is substantial, but his research shows the financial risk will eventually pay off.

"At the end of the day, if I didn't think the financial metrics were there, I wouldn't be doing it," Pearson said.

Hops need help — all the time!

Clear Valley Hops near Collingwood, Ont., already has about 20 breweries buying the crop. Laurie Thatcher-Craig and her husband John Craig started the farm just four years ago and are considered one of the more experienced growers in this young industry.

Like Pearson, John Craig wanted a career change and suggested to his wife they go into farming.

Laurie Thatcher-Craig and John Craig started Clear Valley Hops four years ago. (Kristie Woods)

"I said, 'Not without a plan. Like if you're really serious about making a change in life, that's great, but you better have a plan.' So he looked into many crops, one of which was hops," said Thatcher-Craig. "With the craft brewing industry growing like it's growing and the focus on local, we both felt it was a good investment."

She estimates the cost of producing hops is about $50,000 per acre. To date, they have 13 acres of production and have spent about $1.3 million and they're hoping by next year they'll start to get a return on their investment.

It's a big risk, especially given there's no crop insurance yet for hops that covers production losses caused by natural hazards.

"It's a 24-hour-a-day job growing hops in Ontario," Thatcher-Craig said. "My poor husband, he's out at 4:30 a.m. every morning monitoring the irrigation system, turning valves on and off. We check all of the varieties every day to see, 'OK, is there a break in the hose? Is there a problem over here?'"

All the hard work is producing impressive results. The yields on the plants keep going up and so do the sales.

"We feel a great sense of pride when the brewery has a big successful product line because of our hops. I mean that's just a win-win for everybody," she said.

Craft brewers can't get enough

Marvin Dyck, brewmaster at Wellington Brewery in Guelph, Ont., launched a beer in May made exclusively with Clear Valley Ontario hops.

Marvin Dyck, Brewmaster at Wellington Brewery, holds some Ontario-grown hops he uses in his beer. (Wellington Brewery)

The new beer called Kickin' Back has become so popular the brewery can barely keep up with demand.

"The response has been phenomenal. Beyond what I was expecting," Dyck said. "We can't keep it on the shelves right now."

He brews most of his beer using U.S.-grown hops, but is starting to use locally grown Ontario hops, even if they're slightly more expensive.

"There's something about having local and fresh," he said. "You can meet the farmer, if there's a struggle you can talk to them directly. We have a great open relationship with Laurie, just talking about the crop and where things are at. It's a little more personable."

And it's that relationship between the grower, the brewer and the beer drinker that Canadian hops farmers are banking on as they work tirelessly to improve the quality of their crop.

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