By Andrew Campbell
With the craft beer craze in full swing, farmers in several parts of Canada are growing a new crop – hops!
Demand for locally grown hops, one of the key ingredients in beer brewing, is expanding alongside the demand for craft beer with many craft brewers using significantly more hops per pint than their larger rivals. Plus, for many of those brewers, a local supply hops only adds to their story of building up their own communities.
The Hayhoe brothers saw growing hops as complementary to their usual corn, soybean and wheat crops. After all, much of the work for tending to and harvesting the hops takes place when they aren’t as busy in their grain fields. Plus, with dozens of local breweries near their Southern Ontario farm, they have demand right at their doorstep. So, come along on this hop farm tour as we see how they are grown, harvested and processed. Plus you can watch a little taste testing to make sure the quality was top notch!
What are hops and what are they used for?
Hops are the flowers of the hop plant. Hops are what add bitterness and flavour to all different kinds of beer. The female flowers of the hop plant are called cones because they look like soft green pine cones. Brewers need the dark yellow oil called lupulin found towards the centre of the cone. Lupulin is very aromatic. If you smell the whole cone, it’s just going to smell green, but once the cone is broken open and the oil is released, it becomes aromatic and you can really get a sense of the flavors the hops will add to the beer.
Why grow hops?
On Todd and Scott’s farm, they grow corn and beans as their main crops. They added in hops as a way to diversify their farm. Hops are not tied to commodity markets, so for example, if corn and beans go up and down in price with market fluctuations, hops prices remain more steady. Harvesting takes place two or three weeks before the start of bean and corn harvest, so the timing works to finish harvesting hops before they have to start harvesting their main crops.
How tall do hops grow?
Hops are grown on an 18 foot high trellis, which maximizes their growing patterns. This means the hops grow to 18 feet and then start to fill out at the right time of year to maximize their production.
How do you support the hop plants so it can grow 18 feet tall?
Poles are placed into the ground with a cable running along the top of the poles and down the rows. Each of the cables has two strings allocated to each hop plant. The strings are tied at the top of the cable at one end and stuck into the ground right next to a hops plant at the other end.
The hop plants will grow up the string on its own, but the best practice is to come out two weeks after planting, when the shoot is about 3 feet long, and wrap the shoot counter clockwise around the string. As soon as the hop plant is started on the string, it will climb on its own. The hop plants follow the sun as it crosses the sky. They climb and then curl around the supports. They can climb up to a foot each day.
How many hops does it take to make beer?
Once hops are harvested, they are dried down and processed into pellets, which reduces the weight of each individual cone by four or five times. Depending on the type of beer, brewers use between a quarter pound to 4 pounds of hops for one keg of beer.
How do you harvest hops?
Farmers start harvesting first thing in the morning. Using a knife, the hop plant and support string is cut off right at the bottom. Then Todd and Scott use their grain truck with a platform on top to collect the hop vines. Todd drives the truck backwards down the row while Scott stands on top of a platform and cuts the top string for each hop plant. The hop plants fall down into the truck bed as they drive along. They harvest two rows at a time and then deliver them to the processing barn.
What happens to the hop plants in the processing barn?
The whole vine is brought to the processing barn in the back of a grain truck. Todd and Scott use a machine to separate the hops from the leaves. Every vine is loaded individually into the machine on a chain that will drag it into finger picking drums. Finger picking drums are rollers that knock all the leaves and hops off of the vines.
There are seven different finger picking drums that the plants go through, followed by a series of fans positioned at different angles on the conveyors and these divide the hops cone from the leaves. Another conveyor takes the clean hops out and loads them to be dried. The last conveyor collects all the rope and all the leaves to be disposed of.
Efficiency is critical to ensure the freshness of the hops as they go from harvest to separation to drying to pelletization and finally storage in the freezer.
How do you turn the hops into a dry pellet?
After the green hops cone is harvested from the field, they need to be dried down, ground up and pelletized. Once they are pelletized, the hops are placed in a vacuum sealed nitrogen flushed bag to protect them from oxygen and to keep them fresh. This is the product that Todd and Scott sell to breweries to make beer.
Who do you sell hops to?
Todd and Scott just started selling hops in 2018. After harvest, they contact all the small craft breweries in the area and work outwards until their product is sold. Of the many different varieties of hops available, Todd and Scott grow three varieties: Cascades, Centennial and Chinook. When they market their hops to the local breweries, they’ll often take samples of their product and explain that these hops are grown right in the neighbourhood, which often is not well known.
Can you sell hops right off the vine without drying them?
There are fresh hop beers that use the whole cone dry or fresh. Brewers need to pick up the hop cones on the same day they are harvested and begin brewing with them by the next day.
Full Hops Video From FreshAirFarmer Andrew Campbell’s Dinner Starts Here Series