Long before craft breweries were hip, Remi Van De Slyke started to grow hops. It was a small venture. To be truthful, it was more like an experiment with about three acres on his Straffordville, Ontario farm.
“Hops were not part of anyone’s vocabulary,” recalls Van De Slyke. “There was no agronomic information, there was no machinery.”
Fifteen years ago, tobacco growers like Van De Slyke were looking for alternatives and he was eager to reinvent the family farm. Ginseng became his biggest and most profitable crop with 50 acres, but he’s been coaching neighbours on hops too. In 2008, he bought a hop harvester and a pellet mill to help decrease labour costs. A good engineer could probably make this second-hand equipment better, but for now, it’s what he relies on to strip the cones from the vines in mid-August.
The challenges are as high as the 18-foot trellises that hops twine around. Labour-intensive, hops require stringing, pruning and hand-harvesting. His first growing site was too rocky for the posts that anchor the trellis system. Variety choices weren’t that well suited for the humid climate. Diseases such as powdery and downy mildew plundered the crop. Insects such as spider mites, aphids, Japanese beetles and leafhoppers all liked to take a bite -- together.
Today, he’s working on his third growing site. With experience, his hopyard has expanded to eight acres. Van De Slyke is at the vanguard of a nascent industry that’s adapting to the needs of customers. His modest acreage increase is due to one “believer” client: Railway City Brewery in St. Thomas, Ontario. Along with two other growers - Hay-Hoe Hops and V.Q.H. Hops – they are the local supplier of hops to this local brewery.
“We are growing better hops and better beer,” says Van De Slyke. He’s teamed up with fellow grower Curtis VanQuaethem from V.Q.H. Hops, who is marketing to brewers across the province. “The progress has been very good in growing hops, but it’s been very slow in getting local hops into breweries,” VanQuaethem says.
Ontario brewers are quite knowledgeable about the raw ingredient because they are familiar with the consistency and quality of hops available in the United States and Europe. If local hops are to make the grade, they must smell right and store well – factors that can now be measured by Niagara College with a testing service made available in 2016. For $70, hop growers can have their sample tested for alpha acids, beta acids, hop storage index and moisture analysis. These are the metrics that can help establish fair pricing.
Fifteen years ago, hops were not part of anyone’s vocabulary. There was no agronomic information, there was no machinery. ~ Remi Van De Slyke
Despite these local support services, growers are having to lean hard on brewers about the fruitier-tasting hops grown in Ontario. Cascade, for example, one of the most popular varieties tastes differently grown on sandy soils than in the U.S.
“To be honest, we’re working very hard to make hops viable,” says VanQuaethem. “We’re all being subsidized by other crops. This has been a long hard road.”
VanQuaethem, a corn, soybean and processing vegetable grower, admits that hops earn less than one per cent of his annual gross income. “It’s a wash,” he says. “We get free beer.”
This back story is starkly different from the halo of publicity surrounding the craft brewing industry. Since its inception in 2005, the Ontario Craft Brewers Association has been signing up members and now counts 70 in its numbers. There are 140 operating breweries and 50 contract breweries in the province. Overall, the association estimates 1,500 direct brewery jobs.
Hugh Brown, president of the Ontario Hop Growers’ Association, agrees that the budding industry has the potential for lots of spill-offs. In 2016, there were 85 Ontario growers who produced 31,000 pounds of dried hops from 80 acres under trellis. The province is third in production after British Columbia and Quebec. So much work is ahead to quantify the attributes of local hops against international standards.
“The association is working up some sensory perception tasting experiments to try and define what effect Ontario terroir has on the flavour and aroma profiles of some of the most popular hop varieties,” says Brown. He’s talking about varieties such as Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Nugget, Hallertau and others.
As growers scale up in acreage, more processing infrastructure is coming into play. Last year, a pellet mill was installed near Colborne, Ontario. Still, there are only a couple of full-time hops growers in the province. Brown says it would take 15 to 20 acres to make a modest living.
These small businesses are now the purview of Jeff Leal, Ontario’s agriculture, food and rural affairs minister, who was given the added responsibility in mid-January. No surprise, then, that he officiated at the announcement of federal and provincial funds to Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company in Vankleek Hill for an upgrade to an automated bottling line.
According to Beer Canada, most of the growth is driven by breweries producing less than 200,000 litres per year. To put that figure into perspective, 100 litres equals 12.2 cases of 24 multiplied by 341 mL bottles.
If you blow away the froth, most of the jobs in the hops-beer complex are in processing. They aren’t in growing hops. While Ontario’s premier challenged agriculture and agri-food in 2013 to create 120,000 additional jobs by 2020, it’s a long slog. By the agriculture minister’s own accounting, 42,000 jobs have been created to date. The hops industry is a case study in how hard it is to incubate and nurture theentire chain to profitability. It’s not seven years, but more like 15 years. Think of the services and supports required to grow an industry from research to marketing.
On February 22, the fifth Great Ontario-Hopped Craft Beer Competition will be held at the annual Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Niagara Falls. Co-organizer Jason Deveau recounts how discouraged he felt five years ago when the judges had harsh comments. It was a reality check. That competition has played an integral role in measuring the progress of the hops industry. This year, a record 18 teams of growers and breweries will be judged.
Remi Van De Slyke will be among those competitors. Like the sandy soils of his farm, he has grit. It’s a trait hard to describe but simply put, grit is the driver towards a very long-term goal.