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A convergence of factors is fueling a resurgence of hop farming in B.C.
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Brian MacIsaac opened Crannôg Ales, a 10 acre diversified, organically-certified farm in Sorrento, in 1999.
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Crannôg Growler produced at the organically-certified farm in Sorrento, BC.
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Hops in a Pot
Growth and the drip irrigation system at Hopyard 1 School of Horticulture (Urban Ecosystems) Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
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Specialized Tractor Rig
This specialized tractor rig with hoists is used for picking hops at Sartori’s hop farm in Chilliwack, BC.
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A convergence of factors is fueling a resurgence of hop farming in B.C.
Not the large scale producers of yore but, “small scale hop yards employing new technology that will serve the province’s craft brewers.” reports the Chilliwack Museum Hops Exhibit “Brewer’s Gold”.
The hop farming/craft brewing story is not unlike that of grape growing and the wine industry in the late 1980s, when the North American Free Trade Agreement resulted in radical surgery in the vineyards, and led to the creation of the VQA program.
Raising the standards for B.C. wine set the industry on a fast track of growth and viability in a competitive market place. Like grapes, hops add flavour (bitterness, spice, citrus, etc.) and aroma components to beer, which explains why crafts generally use more varieties and greater concentrations of hops than mass-produced brews.
The beginning of serious hop farming in B.C. dates back to 1892 when Englishman Henry Hulbert purchased 50 acres of farmland in Sardis and planted the first successful hop-growing field in the province.
U.S. prohibition between 1920 and 1933 pushed Canadian brewing and hop growing to ever greater heights in order to supply the vast American market through illegal channels.
“By the 1940s, the Fraser Valley communities of Agassiz, near Chilliwack, and Sardis were the largest hop producing regions in the British Commonwealth,” according to Brewer’s Gold.
In the 1990s two factors contributing to B.C. hop farming’s collapse included; market focus of fewer and bigger multinational brewing companies and competition from lower cost producers in Europe, Australia and the north-west states of the U.S. China is also a growing player.
Given the demise of the industry, how is it that hop growing is undergoing a revival in B.C. and the rest of Canada? Basically, it is the rise of craft breweries.
“There are now over 65 craft breweries in 33 communities across B.C. that use local ingredients and traditional practices in their beer-making processes,” says Ken Beattie, the executive director of the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild. “With 10 crafts opened in 2013 and the trend continuing in 2014, craft beer is on the rise in B.C,” he adds.“Crafts now account for 19% of domestic beer sales and that number will continue to increase…We are also seeing positive spin-offs through increased construction, skills training, technological production, agri-tourism and, as we look to local producers to source our ingredients, the revival of the agricultural sector.”
To “level the playing field” for “B.C. Made” beer, Beattie looks to the VQA model and stronger government support. “Working with government, we would like to replicate what was done in Oregon…where craft beer is now a $2 billion dollar industry,” he says. A leading beer expert, Beattie knows something about hops, having “worked at the last hop farm in B.C. when it closed in 1997.” The best hops in the world, he maintains, “grow in the vicinity of the 49th parallel.” It is part of the reason for the growth in hop farms in B.C. which went from zero to a dozen or more currently.
Go no further than Sorrento outside of Salmon Arm for the origins of B.C.’s current wave of hop farming. When Vancouver native Brian MacIsaac opened Crannôg Ales, a 10 acre diversified, organically-certified farm in Sorrento in 1999, before the craft beer resurgence, he vowed to “make beer the way they were before the industrial revolution.” After running into difficulties sourcing the right kinds of hops from New Zealand and Germany, MacIsaac decided to grow his own hops on his diversified, organic farm. Starting in 2000, he has planted 400 plants comprising 14 varieties on 2 acres on 2 fields of his farm. “As we only have enough for our own production, we only bring in hops from elsewhere if we find something unique and interesting,” he says. Concerned about the environmental effects of packaging, Crannôg Ales are only available as draft beer at licensees and in growlers and reusable party pigs at the brewery. Using hard water from a well on his property, MacIsaac is willing to wager that his is the only brewery in the world on a certified organic farm with a zero-waste system.
The resurgence of craft brewing created a new demand for locally-grown hops. Coupled with world shortages of hops and higher prices, growing hops started to look a lot more attractive. When interested growers turned to MacIsaac for advice, he established Left Fields to supply hop rhizomes, root cuttings of the hop vine, and hop growing information. “It grew into an enterprise unto itself with 500 customers in Canada including home brewers and farm owners seeking more profitable uses for their land,” he says.
The first B.C. farmer to embrace hop growing’s potential was Christian Sartori, owner of Sartori Cedar Ranch, a 160 acre pig and cattle farm in Chilliwack’s Columbia Valley. “A crash in the hog market threw the future of the farm into question,” says Nick Sartori, Christian’s son. “Replacing pigs with goats provided part of the answer,” he explains. After hail in Europe caused a shortage of hops about 7 years ago, hop farming presented a new opportunity for the Sartori family. No stranger to beer, Christian Sartori owned a restaurant in Germany and sold a lot of beer before immigrating to Canada. After consulting with hop specialist Rick Knight, the last manager of the Haas hop yard in Sardis until its demise in 1997, Christian Sartori decided to take on the challenge.
Planted about 6 years ago with 13 acres, Sartori’s commercial hop farm was the largest in Canada. Not long after, Molson Coors came knocking in search of B.C. hops for one of its iconic brews. To recreate Molson Export using John Molson’s original recipe, they needed B.C. hops, and Sartori’s Chilliwack hops more than made the grade, giving the business a big boost, both financially and in the media. No less satisfying for Nick Sartori, a craft beer aficionado, is the success of Driftwood Brewery’s Sartori Harvest IPA. The seasonal, wet-or fresh-hopped beer is the most anticipated craft brew in North America,” he says.“The hops are harvested, freshly-packed and rushed to the Driftwood in Victoria to make a beer brimming with the character – earth, water and air – of Chilliwack’s Columbia Valley.” Enthusiastic about the future of B.C.’s booming craft beer industry, the Sartoris have developed their own palletizing, he says. “We can ship 20 or 100 lb. packs by the next day in B.C. at prices that are competitive, without the complications of cross border transportation.
“Other hop growers are at different stages of planning and building their operations. They include craft brewers looking to grow their own hops such as Mt. Lehman Brewery, or develop partnerships with hop growers such as Phillips Brewing Company in Victoria. Also on the list are hop supplier Hops Connect in Pemberton, Bitterbine Hop Company in Lillooet, which bills itself as the hops capital of Canada, and the Langley Campus of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, which is adding a hop field, in conjunction with their new brewing program. In sync with the upward curve of the craft brewing industry, B.C. hop farming is on the upswing. If the soil conditions are right and good advice or training on growing practices are available’ and local craft brewers are supportive, a hop field is an option well worth considering for B.C.’s enterprising farmers.