A BC Hop-story

by Sonia Montisca

In the gloomy winter months, the promise of Victoria Beer Week on the horizon is a welcomed one for beer lovers. Between Great Canadian Beer Festival and VBW, Fresh to Death keeps the hopheads happy. But what’s in a hop anyway?

A hoppy history

BC has a long history of hop farming that can be traced back to the late 1800s in both the Fraser Valley and the Saanich Peninsula. Prohibition in the US from 1920 to 1933 caused hop growing to expand just as Canada’s own stint with prohibition was ending. The Fraser Valley became one of the largest hop producing regions before the market collapsed in the 1990s. Its fall was brought on by the rise of macrobrewing, as well as the opening of the market to lower cost producers of hops from Europe, Australia, and the Pacific Northwest region of the US.

Hop farm in Chilliwack.

Return of the hops?

As craft brewing has soared over the last two decades especially, the revival of hop farming in BC has sputtered. Although the demand is obviously there, local hop farms have not yet been able to provide a full supply.

The hops that give flavour and aroma to the craft beer in your hand right now are, most likely, from the world’s largest hop producing country, the US. Washington State’s Yakima Valley and the Willamette Valley in Oregon make up more than three quarters of the country’s hop crop. 

The two next biggest hop producers in the world, Germany and the Czech Republic, both fall along the 49th parallel like BC does. Nevertheless, Canada isn’t even in the top 10 of hop producing countries worldwide. So, if BC’s climate allows for quality hop farming of multiple varieties, why hasn’t the market been able to provide enough to supply the boom in craft beer?

Some of it has to do with the time and dedication that needs to go into establishing a good brewing variety of the plant. Stabilization of a new hop variety can take a decade and a stabilized hop plant should stay planted for at least another decade to fully mature. Known varieties that don’t need to be stabilized take about three years to reach full production, with some sales possible in year two.

Building out the infrastructure of a hopyard is also not cheap. Trellising, irrigation, and soil development at the plant’s growing stage, as well as the need for special picking machines, dryers, balers, pelletizers, and packaging at the harvest stage (particularly if the brew is meant to be fresh-hopped), makes the up-front investment much bigger than for other crops. Being resource, land, and labour intensive means a good return on investment for hops takes longer than most farmers can put up with.

Another issue with hop production is in the way the plant is sold. Many hop varieties are protected by licenses, meaning only certain people are entitled to grow them. If that year’s supply is already spoken for and sold through contracts, getting that hop could be next to impossible. While craft brewers are nimble creatures by nature, they need a reliable hop supply to create quality beer.

The potential for growth

Speaking of beer, the trendy nature of craft brewing is also a hindrance to establishing sustainable hop farms. Cultivating a new hop varietal every year or two to keep up with the latest trend is simply not feasible. 

To stimulate the local market, some BC breweries are collaborating with small local hop yards in the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island for their hop supply, at least for some of their brews. These mutually beneficial partnerships allow breweries to really stand behind the “drink local” culture they’ve inspired, while providing hop growers with steady clientele to help maintain their operation. But more business is always helpful and necessary in this sector to establish a stable stock.

A few breweries that are established on farmland, like Crannog Ales in Sorrento and Persephone Brewing in Gibsons, are growing their own hops for their beer production. Crannog, for example, has been focused on being a sustainable small scale farm-to-brewery operation since 2000, first planting hops on their farm, called Left Fields, in 2001. The team published a growing manual in 2004 to share their knowledge and experience. They currently grow 16 hop varieties that are used in their ales and they also sell hops rhizomes to other interested farmers. 

Focusing on the terroir of BC’s various bioregions and understanding how they each affect the profile of a hop variety is a key step in creating a long-term market. That’s why brewers have been partnering with local research labs at colleges and universities to help speed up the breeding and growing process of wild hop varieties in an effort to have a bank to use in the future. 

The potential for growth in the industry exists. A small core group of farmers that are already doing high-grade growing and packaging are determined to help it grow better. With some more support from community craft breweries, the hop farm revival in BC could be booming too.