Small breweries around the world seek hops that are grown in different soil and climates to create unique flavours
CHILLIWACK, B.C. — Chilliwack was once the largest hops growing region in the British Commonwealth but the crop slowly fell out of favour.
Thanks to the exponential growth of craft breweries around the world, farmers are interested in planting them again.
Chilliwack Hop Farms started as a hobby and has grown to more than 300 acres of privately owned and contracted land in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia.
Owned by John Lawrence, the operation started with a few acres in 2011.
Today, the company grows about 20 varieties in its own greenhouses, and has a sophisticated harvesting, drying and distribution facility for customers around the world.
Working out of a former horse barn the original plan was to sell the hops to Molson brewery.
“We never ended up selling to Molson’s at all. It was the craft brewing industry that took it all,” said John Briner, in charge of marketing for Chilliwack Hop Farms. A former hop grower, he joined the company as its marketing plans expanded.
Chilliwack Hop Farm grows more than 20 varieties of hops in the company greenhouse. | Barbara Duckworth photo
Hops act as a preservative and give each beer a distinctive flavour. With the surge of small breweries, many beer drinkers are looking for something unique.
Hops are super bitter. Briner compares them to the garlic in garlic bread where very little is needed.
“It balances out the sweetness of the malt,” he said.
“Without hops, beer is basically a sweet, malted drink.”
“You’ve got a demographic that is no longer interested in macro, generic, flavourless lagers. There is a generation now that wants something more flavourful,” he said.
He compares the surge in craft beers to the demand for better coffee.
“Once you have had a good tasting coffee you don’t want to go back,” he said.
A typical recipe may have two or three varieties of hops where one makes it bitter while another adds flavour or aroma.
While most varieties are developed elsewhere, companies have learned growing conditions change the final product.
“You can take hops that originated in Germany that we grow here and they taste very different just because of the soil and climate and environment,” Briner said.
The U.S. Pacific Northwest region seems to grow a unique type with a citrus aroma. Chilliwack Hop Farms is also experimenting with added flavours. It has added spruce tips or lavender during the pelleting process. They have also tried smoking hops.
Growing hops requires plenty of hands-on labour.
Three years ago, the company started growing its own plants from finger-sized rhizomes under the supervision of greenhouse manager Cori McKay.
About 250,000 plants are started from rhizomes in the greenhouse and are later transplanted to fields. A perennial plant, hops start to grow early in the season.
“Out in the field, they start popping out around March and in the greenhouse it is when we turn the heat on,” McKay said.
At the greenhouse, she has four full-time people and during busy periods contracts more workers.
“Many hands are needed,” she said
The plants are placed about three feet apart in the field. Large poles are sunk in the ground at a rate of 60 per acre and coconut ropes hang down from overhead wires. The plants are trained to climb the ropes.By summer solstice, the vines have reached the top and then start pushing out horizontally to create walls of growth.
“If it is raining a lot you don’t need to irrigate but they are thirsty plants. In the heat of the summer they need more,” she said.
As they mature, green burrs that look like pine cones form. Each plant produces about two pounds of cones containing essential oils and aromas.
At harvest time, the vines and ropes are cut down and composted while the cones go to the facility to be pressed, dried and pelleted.
Some brewers request fresh hops that must be delivered immediately to preserve the flavours.
The pelleted form can last for three years in special vacuum packages. A five kilogram bag sells for about $165.
“The economics are there to expand and grow,” Briner said.
“At this point it is a fairly lucrative industry in terms of per pound, but it is very labour intensive so we spend a lot of money on contract labour,” he said.
Once the hops are processed, they are shipped across Canada and around the world.
“Every six to eight weeks we load a container and send them to Russia. Russia is one of our biggest markets right now,” Briner said.
Calgary-based companies like Big Rock Breweries in Calgary and Brewsters Brewing may each use 20,000 pounds of hops, but Cariboo Brewing at Prince George, B.C., is its largest customer.
“It is the power of social media. We are really active on social media. All of our Russian sales came through Instagram,” said Briner.
While this company is growing, a larger industry has developed in Washington state. About two-thirds of the U.S. crop is grown in the Yakima Valley.