County hops crops growing as craft beer booms
The chatter of nature in the big sky, green earth farmland outside Hillier is interrupted by the sudden burst of a noisy motor. Behind the drive shed at Pleasant Valley Hops, a machine processes long strings of the frilly green fruit, separating them from the vine. The air is filled with a scent that can best be described as green.
Growers from five County hops yards watch as Pleasant Valley workers feed the vines into the machine. The spirit of sharing is there. Along with helping each other with tips, purchasing equipment together and learning to grow hops together, the community of hops growers in the County share this machine.
It’s leaps and bounds ahead of where some of them started, stripping the fruit from the vines by hand, enlisting the help of friends who were sure to disappear once harvesting season rolled around in year two. Many are planning to expand their yards next year.
Husband-and-wife team Edgar Ramirez and Catherine Crawford opened Peasant Valley Hops five years ago, following in the footsteps of Larry Roche’s Wind Dance farm on Big Island. Roche, who died in 2014, mentored Ramirez when he was beginning his operation. Before that operation opened, hops had not been a part of the County’s agriculture since the Barley Days at the turn of the last century.
Don Wilford of Chase Farm Hops says that like wine, hops take a flavour and scent profile from its local terroir.
Jens Burgen, who owns Fronterra Farm Camp and Brewery, plans on making beer from ingredients all sourced from his own property. He says the County’s barley once fetched a premium on the American markets for its superior quality and flavour.
“We are trying to bring about a renaissance as well,” says Burgen. “I would love to see that whole history be reinvigorated. And it’s a great story to tell.”
This year, the hops growers are excited to take on a more visible role in the County, staking a place at the County’s first beer festival, Homegrown, in October. There, they hope to educate the public on their role in creating local beer, and to develop stronger relationships with local brewers who often buy hops from further afield, where the prices are more manageable for small, new breweries like the ones that have recently popped up in the County.
Although they do sell to local growers—Parsons Brewing Company is a good customer—much of the hops are sold in nearby cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and Kingston.
“A lot of our customers are from outside of the County. I think for the local brewers, purchasing local ingredients hasn’t really caught on,” says Crawford. “I think the assumption that craft beer is local ingredients, I think that’s an assumption that people just automatically make, but about 95 per cent of the ingredients are imported from outside of Canada. We’re going to change that.”
Justin Graham is the brewer at Radical Road Brewing Company in Toronto. He discovered Pleasant Valley Hops by chance when one of Crawford’s relatives visited Graham’s brew pub at the same time that the company was planning to create a Canada 150 beer using only Canadian ingredients.
This week, Graham returned to the County for a second batch of hops, this time fresh from the vines, for a seasonal wet-hop beer.
“This wet-hop beer will be 100 per cent centennial hops from Prince Edward County,” says Graham. “If I had the option to, I would definitely do 100 per cent Ontario everything. The only problem is that local tends to be more expensive… unfortunately my bosses have gotten me to save costs everywhere I can. Edgar and Catherine’s prices are still quite competitive, I find, and their product is fantastic, so I use them as much as I can.”
Graham says that as a small brewery, his ability to give business to local growers is limited, but with a growing craft brewery industry, it’s the quantity of brewers and not the amount they can buy that matters.
“We have not hit saturation yet, in my opinion,” says Graham. “I hope it keeps growing. Market share in the LCBO and Beer Store keeps growing every year. Craft beer sells more and more and more, and the big guys sell less and less and less. All good signs.”
“What’s happening here is all because of craft brewers. If it wasn’t for craft brewers, there would be no local hop industry,” says Wilford. “It’s local guys who love beer and are making it here, that’s our market.”