High on the Bine

Photo Courtesy of Emily Collins

The Ever Growing Influence of Today’s Hop Industry in Canada’s Brewing

James Burt

With fall quickly approaching, Canadian harvest season is in full swing and for Canada’s beer producers, this means heavy hop production.

“Our harvest period runs from the end of August and into September,” said Hayhoe Hops’ proprietor Scott Hayhoe of Aylmer, Ontario. “We’ve got a variety of hops but the big ones are the most commonly used in today’s beer: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook.”

While many beer lovers are only aware of them by labeling certain brews as ‘hoppy’ and how they affect beer’s taste, hops and their production are integral parts of brewing and one that brewers, both commercial and amateur, need to be acutely aware of. Since hops provide both flavouring and preservative qualities to beers, hop producers work hard to produce top quality hops. As one might imagine, the hop production in Canada has grown with the growing beer industries.

Hayhoe described in detail the typical seasonal hop cultivating process.

“We get them off the bine with a German picker, send them to a conveyor that brings them to the drier where they’re dried down to an eight-to-ten percent moisture level. We then condition them for a day or two, then put them through a pellet mill where they are pressed into pellets—the ones you see in bags at brewing stores or production plants—then sealed in Mylar bags for shipment.”

What beer lovers may also not be aware of are the threats that face hop growers. Like any other vegetable crops, hops face their own small-sized predators, ranging from microbial entities to hop-eating pests.

“We’re always considering the number of pest and disease pressures on hops,” says Colin Ashbee of Fenwick, Ontario’s Hops of Pelham. “You get the fungus infestations, with the biggest one being downy mildew, and powdery mildew being a close second. You get a host of pests that attack too: spider mites, Japanese beetles, and leafhoppers.”

Ashbee went further to detail how having a good production plant in place can combat the various hop-consuming organisms.

“Our production facility uses both the clean plant program and an immigrant pest management system. These include using various chemistries that treat the hops and resist the invasive bodies hops face while still allowing for sustainable hop growth.”

Despite such rigorous farming processes, both Hayhoe and Ashbee spoke with optimism of the future of locally grown hops.

“The new breweries are driving the hop production here one hundred percent,” said Hayhoe. “And it’s not just a ‘cool’ phenomenon that some think it is. There’s a real market for it over the long-term.”

Added Ashbee, “Hop production in Eastern Canada still has its challenges but brewers are now just getting locally grown hops that they couldn’t before unless they they brought them in from Europe. It’s not just Cascade or Chinook either—others hop varieties like Glacier are in bigger demand.”

Once in the retail sector, hops are readily available in small and large quantities. However, knowledge of hops is good thing to have for all brewers. Nick Zubacs, proprietor of Toronto’s Brew North, stocks a regular range of hops for home brewers and noted which hops were the most popular.

“It’s the ‘C’ hops—Citra is still incredibly popular, with Cascade and Chinook close behind. They give beers that fruity, piney flavour. For brewing a bitter English Ale, Fuggle or East Kent Golding hops are necessary.”

While explaining hops and their related taste impacts, Zubacs spoke of how consumers should take particular note of alpha acid rating of each hop for brewing.

“Too often brewers just choose a variety of hops without doing any research. Brewers have to do the math of the alpha acid rating for how much hop they need to use in a recipe of brewing.  The higher the alpha acid rating, the more bitter your beer is going to be. If you don’t think about this in advance, you can ruin your whole batch.”