Hop Farming in the Thompson Okanagan
BC has a long history of hop cultivation, and at one time was the largest producer of hops in the British Commonwealth, primarily in the fertile land of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. In the Interior, hops were planted at Coldstream Ranch near Vernon in the 1890s. Kamloops had a major hop plantation established in 1936. Okanagan First Nations people gained a reputation for being excellent hop pickers, and would work their way up the valley from Southern Washington during the hop harvest.
The hop industry in BC survived well into mid 20th century, but as Macro Beer took over the market and sourced cheaper hops from producers in the US, Australia and Europe, BC farmers were unable to compete. The last commercial hop yard of that era in BC closed in 1997.
In 2000, Crannóg Ales became the first of the new wave of hop growers, producing hops to use in their own brewery. In 2009, Sartori Hop Ranch became the first major commercial producer on the scene. With at least two dozen hop farms currently operating in the Province, interest is starting to develop in the Thompson Okanagan—more frequently associated with orchards and vineyards. Here are five of their stories.
The Little Guy
A Guy With A Shovel Hop Yard (AGWASHY) was started five years ago by Steve Tomlinson, with 300 plants on a third of an acre in the West Bench neighbourhood of Penticton. Steve and his wife, Rita, were looking to plant a cash crop on their one-acre property. After reading about hops, he decided to plant a test row which did quite well, so he took the plunge, and has been tweaking the system ever since.
He sourced his hops from Left Fields (Crannóg) and originally planted Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Fuggle, Nugget, Newport, Galena, Willamette, Mount Hood, Golding and Zeus. Steve figured brewers would value variety, but later discovered diversity worked against him. Alpha Acid tests are used to standardize use of hops, but cost $80 annually for each strain. As this would have greatly reduced his profit, he’s never had this done. This year he replanted, focusing on Chinook, Centennial and Cascade. He kept a few original plants for his own brewing purposes and the rest were sold. Hopefully, being able to do Alpha Acid testing will attract more interest in his hops this year.
The setup of his yard was pretty DIY, sourcing the most affordable materials he could find and enlisting help of friends and family. While AGWASHY is not certified organic, it’s not far off either. He hasn’t sprayed at all this year, and although there are some aphids, the local ladybug population seems to keep them at bay. Granulated fertilizer was applied in the spring, but that’s about it. There is a flurry of work once the shoots come up – setting up the strings, training the bines, and cutting back all but the strongest two shoots. During summer he can be fairly hands-off and then come fall he has help from family and friends to pick, dry, and pack the harvested cones.
I asked Steve if he would recommend backyard hop farming as a home business after his five years of trial and error. He chuckled and said that maybe for a home brewer planting several varieties using a maypole trellis system could be fun and economical. One of the challenges of being a small-scale commercial grower is the expensive infrastructure, such as harvesting equipment. Steve built his own picker and sorter last year, but it didn’t quite do the job, so he’s back to the drawing board. Producing the final product is labour intensive at this stage, and risky without a committed customer at the end of the year. Breweries have been fickle in their interest so far and Steve feels that selling his crop to another producer or a co-op would offer him the best chance of success. If this falls through, hopefully by having the alpha acid values he could target the growing home brewing market, either through direct sales or via brewing supply stores.
The New Recruit
Brent and Kari Tarasoff are no strangers to the agricultural world. Coming off 30 years of farming in Saskatchewan, they were looking for a lifestyle change when they found a beautiful property on the Upper Bench in Penticton. Inspired by their love of craft beer, they wanted to get involved in the industry without the complications of a brewery or restaurant, and so Square One Hop Growers began. In one sense the name refers to starting over in a new business venture, but it also speaks to hops being the backbone of brewing. “It all starts here” explains Kari, “you need good quality ingredients to make good quality beer”. The Tarasoffs hope to use their agricultural experience to push the envelope on quality and yield in small-scale hop production.
In March 2015 they started with 70 plants, and completed planting two acres this year with 1,750 plants including Columbus, Centennial, Cascade, Chinook, Glacier, Hallertau, Magnum, Mount Hood, Nugget, Willamette, Super Alpha, Pacific Gem, Galena, Crystal, Triple Pearl and Sterling. Sourced mostly from Ontario they started with rhizomes as well as two- and three-year-old plants.
Brent states that compared to his previous experience, hop farming is very labour intensive for the square footage. The initial work to drive the poles, set up the trellis, install drip irrigation and prepare the soil takes a lot of time—and money. Then the seasonal work of training, cutting shoots, weeding, spraying, fertilizing and dealing with the local pest population takes over. They are also busy building a large shop on the property, which will house their production facility. A brand-new harvesting machine was purchased this year and they are considering investing in a pelletizer as well. That is a lot of up-front investment, so they are contemplating renting their harvesting equipment to other hop growers in the area to recoup some of their costs.
One of the challenges Brent and Kari have encountered is the high cost of land here for the final value of the product. This makes it hard to compete with large-scale hop growers in other areas, such as Washington, where the land is quite cheap. As well, expanding beyond their current scope would require hiring a crew, which has its own issues. A huge concern for the small-scale grower is that quality hops require effort and investment – if the hops aren’t well managed the breweries won’t be interested. Kari told me that marketing is also tricky as being relatively new they don’t have standing contracts with any breweries at this point. There has been some interest from Alberta, but they would prefer to sell locally. Pelletizing might help in this regard, as it’s what brewers are used to, but it’s another big investment without a guaranteed return.
Joey Bedard started Hops Canada in March 2015, in partnership with the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in Kamloops. With several successful business partnerships already under his belt, he has good insight into the current hop industry and has built Hops Canada’s business plan looking towards the future. Joey believes that the craft beer explosion, combined with hop shortages, has influenced an increase in hop farming. However, he doesn’t think that the market share for craft beer will grow at the same rate as hop production, which may wind up with a glut of hops in the market, thus greatly reducing their value. Due to this, he has developed this operation on a large scale (220 acres) in order to be profitable at $5.00/lb whereas other growers in the area are looking for profitability at $15.00/lb.
Located down several dirt roads and across the tracks, the vast plantation is on First Nations land and employs several local band members. Planting started last spring and was completed this spring. Currently growing are Chinook, Centennial, Cascade, Zeus, Galena, Cashmere, Tettnang, Mount Hood, Willamette, Crystal, Fuggle, Horizon, Sterling, Triple Pearl, UK East Kent Golding, Golding, Newport, Ultra, Sorachi Ace, and one as-yet unnamed hop. They also have 20 acres of organic hops planted with Zeus, Centennial, Cascade, Chinook, and Galena. Joey’s “pessimistic” estimate of their harvest this year is around 20,000 lbs, but he is hopeful it will be more. Growing on a large scale, Hops Canada can afford the equipment needed to process the hops quickly and create a high quality product. Their harvesting line can currently do 600 bines an hour, and they are looking at doubling their machines in the next few years to get through harvest even faster.
Hops Canada also acts as a brokerage for other varieties of hops that are not grown on site. This allows them to supply brewers wholesale with 50 different varieties of hops. About half their market is located in Canada with the rest sold internationally, to places like India and South Africa. Diversifying this way helps ensure they stay afloat should the local market experience a major shift. They are also working with Thompson Rivers University on a sophisticated breeding program to create novel varieties of hops using genetic trait selection. Currently they are looking to develop varieties with stone-fruit characteristics and have a few test patches planted for further experimentation.
It is impossible to write about the new wave of hop production without mentioning Crannóg Ales and Left Fields farm. Brian MacIsaac and Rebecca Kneen purchased land near Sorrento and started their brewery in 2000. At first they hadn’t planned on growing hops but when they realized organic hops could only be sourced overseas, they starting growing their own in 2001 in order to have a more sustainable ingredient. This was the first of the new-wave of hop cultivation in BC, and at the time there was very little information on how to operate a small-scale hop yard. They gleaned what information they could from existing hop yards elsewhere, although sometimes the farmers were reluctant to share information. Rebecca also researched pre-1930s publications, which actually were quite useful as organic was the only method used back then. Through her research she was able to publish a detailed manual on small-scale hop production, which is available through their website.
All of the hops produced on the farm are used by the brewery. Currently they grow 17 varieties, the majority being Fuggles and Golding, along with Nugget, Magnum, Cascade, Challenger, Mount Hood, Willamette, and Chinook. They grow smaller amounts of other varieties which are used more for experimentation. Each spring they sell rhizomes; now, hundreds of people in BC are growing the children and grandchildren of their hops, myself included. Most interesting is the Sockeye hop; it has a spicy aroma and mild bitterness and was found growing wild on their property. They chose not to patent it, but they do limit the sale of Sockeye rhizomes to organic growers who will respect its wild pedigree.
In early autumn the cones are hand harvested by a small volunteer crew, then dried and packed using custom-made—and sometimes DIY—equipment on site. Brian explained that they don’t pelletize, as this is extra processing which can reduce the quality of the final product. He finds brewing with whole hops is actually easier as the final beer doesn’t require fine filtration that pelletized hops do. They only grow the hops necessary for brewing the following year, and only brew as much beer as their zero-waste system can sustain.
Rebecca believes that for hop growing to become a strong industry, people need more education on growing and processing techniques. The best chance is by small-scale growers working together to produce and market a high quality product. Brian spoke to the high rate of failure in craft brewing as well as hop farming—neither can be successful without planning, knowledge and effort. They think that breweries would prefer to use a local product as long as it meets their high standards for quality, which in the end is what they need to be successful themselves. Rebecca’s final word is that the most important factor is the relationships hop growers develop between themselves, the breweries, and fellow growers.
A New Model
I spoke with Sam Quinlan, who founded Bitterbine Farm in 2009. Located in the unique microclimate of Lillooet, it was the 2nd commercial hop yard of the new wave. The business has now expanded to include 6 other farms in the area in a type of cooperative. Harvesters Of Organic Hops uses a central processing facility and sells the hops collectively. Sam said that a hop producer needs at least 20-40 acres to be competitive. Small hop yards struggle with infrastructure investment and may not have the marketing ability to interest breweries. A cooperative structure provides guidance to growers and produces the volume necessary to get commitment from a brewery.
Currently, Dogwood Brewing is using their hops and is a huge supporter. Sam is also working on starting the Organic Hop Association of BC, which will further develop the industry’s collective interests, give BC hops a brand, and maintain quality standards. He feels that hop growing is “sexy” right now, but the picture isn’t all rosy; too many people go into hop farming without having a clear understanding of what is required to be profitable, especially in the long run. There are many failures that no one hears about, and the BC industry still needs to prove itself to local breweries and beyond. Certainly his insights provide some food for thought for the developing industry in the Thompson Okanagan and beyond.