From the 'bines' to the brewery: Farmers' hops give craft beers personality
Farmers Tim Wilson and Melanie Doerksen have transformed their family’s vegetable farm into a specialized organic hop-growing operation, with lots of variety.
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Odds are you raised a glass this holiday weekend to Canada’s 150th birthday. Cheers to that. And if you’re like hundreds of thousands of beer drinkers in this country, you popped a top on a craft beer.
Craft beer drinkers are always on the lookout for something that tastes different than the rest. So, here’s a question: Given their thirst for variety, why do they always want their beer to taste exactly the same, every time?
That’s more than a rhetorical question. In fact, it’s a gauntlet that some craft beer brewers are throwing down with gusto.
“A craft beer is a bit like grandma’s homemade soup — the recipe is always the same, but local availability ultimately dictates what goes in,” says David Thuss, a worker-owner at the London Brewing Co-operative. “The ingredients reflect what’s in the local fields.”
And that can affect craft beer’s taste (and colour), even from batch to batch. A big influence on taste is the cone-shaped flowers of the hop plant.
Hops have become particularly associated with pale ales, such as India pale ale (IPA). These brews have soared in popularity among craft beer drinkers drawn to their “hoppiness.”
The demand for hops was traditionally driven by national or multinational beer companies, and met by imports from the U.S. or Europe.
But now, with craft beer firmly entrenched in the local food movement, consumers are pressing brewers like Thuss for all-local ingredients.
That’s where Ontario farmers come in.
For hops, Thuss and his beer co-op have turned to a growing concern 95 kilometres away, called the Carolinian Hop Yard (named after the Carolinian Forest, the ecozone in which it lies). There, farmers Tim Wilson and Melanie Doerksen have transformed their family’s vegetable farm into a specialized organic hop-growing operation, with 10 different varieties.
Hop production at the Carolinian Hop Yard is a sight to behold. Hop plants grow like gangly vines (called “bines”), climbing up heavy-gauge string suspended from 20-foot trellises to give the flowers sunshine and ventilation as they hang from the plant.
Organic production is labour intensive, primarily weeding and pruning by hand, and constant scouting to check the delicate, developing flowers for signs of plant disease.
Rainfall and drought, which are in constant flux, influence the hops’ characteristics, and ultimately influence the taste of the beer they flavour.
The Carolinian Hop Yard’s 30 rows of trellises cover four acres, making it a mid-size hop yard. But shortly it will become one of the province’s biggest such operations: Wilson and Doerksen are adding another six acres, and opening their own brew pub on-site.
Wilson says their beer will reflect regional differences in hops production, using their terroir — the way the geography, geology and climate of a location interact with plant genetics — as a point of distinction, like winemakers do.
“These are the tastes of Ontario,” says Wilson. “As a society, we’ve lost our appreciation of these regional differences, and of the blood, sweat and tears it takes to produce food. It doesn’t come from machines. It comes from the land.”
Do you make an extra effort to buy Canadian food and beverages?
The View from the Farm
That’s a lot of terroir to take in
Here’s an update from the Ontario Beverage Network (@OntarioBevNet), a daily news, directory and map source for Ontario beer, cider, and spirits: Ontario now has 207 breweries, 68 contract brewers and 124 planned breweries. Craft beer fans, get busy, you have a lot of terroir to take in this summer.
Buzzing over the bee column
Last week’s bee column generated lots of buzz. Friends of the Earth note their new poll shows most Canadians call pesticides the biggest threat to bees. They’re not, at least not to honeybees — researchers point to blood-sucking varroa mites as this pollinator’s main problem. But as Friends of the Earth says, all threats to bees are important.
Owen Roberts is an agricultural journalist at the University of Guelph. Follow him on Twitter at @TheUrbanCowboy.