After a global hops shortage left microbrewers scrambling, brewmaster Matt Phillips had to get creative.
Instead of calling a hops dealer to secure one of the crucial ingredients he needs to make his beers, he hooked up with a local farmer, lent him $5,000 to start farming the plant last spring, and sat back to wait for the first crop.
"The only redeeming quality of the hops shortage is that the price became high and made it viable so that small-scale farmers could get into hops production," says Mr. Phillips, owner of Phillips Brewing Co. in Victoria.
Call it the upside of the global hops shortage that has plagued the beer industry over the past few years. Today, in Canada, a hops revival is under way, with a new generation of farmers nurturing a crop that was almost forgotten in this country. In turn, they are fostering a microbrewery industry that is looking to a local source for the flower used to flavour beer.
Hops used to be grown wherever beer was brewed in this country. Until the early 1990s, there were hundreds of acres planted in British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario. But these farms closed after a combination of forces hurt the industry. Pests and disease had ravaged the established hop yards and U.S. agricultural subsidies kept prices below the cost of production.
Plus corporate concentration in the brewing industry left farmers with little leverage to ask for more money.
At the same time, major hops-growing countries such as the Czech Republic and Britain were hit with blight as well as storms that affected the yields, says James Altwies, a hops farmer and educator in Wisconsin. The crisis went global.
While the large beer companies had contracts with farmers that guaranteed their supply, microbrewers were hit hard, Mr. Altwies says. Not only was the ingredient in short supply, but the varieties the small companies relied on to create their individual flavours were simply not available. He likens cultivating hops to raising grapes in a vineyard. Similar to the grape, the flower captures the local terroir, reflecting the climate, soil and geography of where it was grown.
"When there is a shortage, those varieties aren't to be had and brewers are faced with not being able to brew the beer they want," he says.
Fortunately, interest in the plant picked up within a new segment of younger, small-scale farmers. There are now farms harvesting the hops in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Ontario. In Quebec, Michaël Parent of Sherbrooke-based microbrewery Boquébière expects to be able to buy hops from local farms within a few years.
The Canadian guru of this hops farming revival is Rebecca Kneen in Sorrento, B.C. She was one of the first in the country to start farming hops again after their disappearance when she planted her vines nine years ago for her partner's beer-making.
"They are pretty cool plants. I sort of fell in love with them" Ms. Kneen says. "They are amazingly fast growers. They die back to the ground every year but grow up to one foot a day in May and June."
When she started, she had no one to turn to for advice on cultivation, so she looked online and trolled for second-hand books published in the twenties and thirties that explained how to grow hops the old-fashioned way. Others have followed her example.
"A lot of people are brand new to farming. And there are people who are taking over family farms who are looking to change the paradigm they are farming in," Ms. Kneen says. But rather than follow the example of the large farms that faltered only a decade or so before, the new generation is approaching the crop differently. Ms. Kneen, for one, farms organically and combines hops with other crops and livestock production on her mixed farm. Her partner runs an on-farm microbrewery, Crannog Ales, that uses the hops she grows.
Joshua Herbin is a 24-year-old hops farmer who, before visiting Ms. Kneen's farm for research, had never seen a hops plant that he hadn't grown himself. He started an organic hop yard on his farm outside Wolfville, N.S., where he planted five vines in 2006.
Today he tends to more than 70, and last year he sold his first harvest to a Moncton microbrewery that wanted to try making a "wet" ale using fresh hops, rather than the dried pellet hops most brewers buy from dealers.
It's not surprising, in this age of 100-mile diets, says Stephen Beaumont, a beer expert in Toronto who has written several books on the topic. "It's quite natural that anyone who is an artisan would want to have local ingredients. It's part of the ethos of being an artisan."
Last year, Mr. Herbin won an innovation award from the Nova Scotia government. But despite his success, he relies on outside work, milking cows on a nearby dairy farm and growing vegetables to sell at the farmers' market to pay the bills.
Hops is a financially demanding crop that costs about $10,000 an acre to set up. Farmers require irrigation equipment, and since the flower is customarily sold in pellet form after harvesting they need processing equipment.
It was these high set-up costs that prompted Mr. Phillips to lend cash to the farmer on Vancouver Island. Now his investment is about to come due. The loan will be repaid in hops.
"This is the year we're hoping to have some serious hops to play with," he says. "Good hops - it's imperative. To have something with local flavour and have a connection with a farmer - it's kind of like icing on the cake."
Special to The Globe and Mail