Hop to it
Hops give balance and depth to beer’s flavour, and in recent years craft breweries have brought the plant’s bitter, floral, and citrus flavours to centre stage.
Like grapes, hops are a vine that grow up a trellis system and mature over time. Hops reach maturity at around three years and continue to grow for around 25 years.
Southeast Alberta’s long sunny days, arid climate and well-established irrigation systems create the ideal environment for hops, a plant typically grown in the Pacific Northwest and Ontario.
“Hops grow very well in Alberta,” says Jason Altmiks of the Alberta Hops Producers Association. “Tests consistently show Alberta hops have the alpha acids sought after by brewers.”
Altmiks started out as a hobby brewer and got into hops as a way to fill a gap in the marketplace. Today, Alberta has 21 commercial hops operations in various stages of production.
So far, 15 acres of hops have been planted in the province, with 8.5 acres at their second year of maturity or greater. By comparison, an average hop yard in Yakima, Washington weighs in at 450 acres.
Alberta’s big challenge, Altmiks says, is in that the demand for Alberta grown hops far exceeds the supply, especially when it comes to fresh hops, which have only a few hours to be transferred from vine to brewery before they lose freshness.
Fresh hop beer is fast becoming a seasonal tradition in Alberta. In 2018, Big Rock Brewery sourced fresh hops from central Alberta’s Northern Girls Hopyard for its “3 Way IPA.” Grizzly Paw Brewery, meanwhile, sourced hops from Southern Alberta’s Pair O’Dice hop yard for their Fresh Hop Ale.
“As local breweries continue to grow, there will be a one-to-one relationship,” says Altmiks. “Hops farmers will look to supply neighboring breweries in creating a largely local product.”
The desire to brew a truly local beer is echoed by at least one of Medicine Hat’s breweries.
“We try to get as local as we can to support the economy,” says Kaiden Vancuren, general manager of sales at Medicine Hat Brewing Company. “It’s nice to get ingredients from a couple hundred kilometres away instead of a couple thousand.”
Alberta brewers use 100,000 pounds of hops annually and it is expected to increase. In fact, a 2018 survey by Olds College indicated 93% of Alberta’s craft breweries don’t have adequate access to high quality, locally-grown hops. In the same survey, nearly half of the brewers surveyed indicated they would be willing to pay as much as 10% premium for locally-grown hops.
For entrepreneurs looking to start a hops yard, Olds College has compiled a list of resources. The college is also conducting a multi-year research project, looking at the best varieties to grow.
Hops plants need a minimum of five hours of sun per day. Medicine Hat is Canada’s sunniest region, with more than 2, 500 hours of annual sunlight and one of the longest growing seasons in Canada. Combine that with moderate winters, low land costs and excellent transportation connections and Canada’s sunniest city is well-suited for hops production.
Similar to a craft maltster, a craft hops producer would have three craft brewers on their doorstep plus more than 30 brewers less than a day’s drive away in Calgary.
Industry associations include the Alberta Hops Producers Association and Alberta Small Brewers Association.