A new niche crop for Ontario
By Julienne Isaacs
You don’t need a lot of acreage to get into hop production. In Ontario, there are perhaps 30 commercial hops producers; together, they harvest about 60 acres total in the province each year – trailing top Canadian hops producer B.C. at 80 acres and Quebec at about 70 acres annually.
“Hops operations start in the two- to three-acre range,” says Evan Elford, new crop development specialist for Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). “Tipping from a hobbyist into commercial production, you’re looking at about half an acre.”
Acreage might be small, but as the craft beer movement continues to grow, demand for hops is increasing in the province.
Elford is a member of the research team for a three-year project called “Hops: a potential niche crop for Ontario,” led by University of Guelph professor Mary Ruth McDonald. The project began in 2013.
“In 2009 and 2010, we were getting a lot of questions from growers and people who were interested in growing hops,” says Elford. “They were asking which cultivars overwinter and/or yield the best in Ontario, which cultivars brewers want to source, and what are the resins – alpha and beta essential oils – like in the different cultivars? And what is the market like?
“Since there was an increasing demand for that type of information, we thought we’d better get a start on looking at this so we can provide information to growers and the industry at large, and so that we can get services to growers,” he says.
The project, funded by OMAFRA and run by the University of Guelph, includes a three-year cultivar evaluation trial as well as a market study.
“Hops were historically grown in Ontario in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At that time, because of disease and prohibition, the industry declined, but we’re starting to see it re-emerge,” Elford says.
Due to a combination of factors – the local food movement and demand for locally-sourced ingredients, along with a hops shortage back in the mid-2000s that saw brewers scrambling to find the volume and varieties they needed – business is once again booming in Ontario.
“Field crop producers have been expanding into hops – we see it mainly from horticultural producers, but also people who are new to agriculture, who see the potential for hops as a new, high-value, low-acreage crop,” Elford says.
“If growers can produce a quality hop they seem to be able to sell whatever they grow,” he says. “That’s an encouraging side of production. And we see more craft breweries popping up every year. That’s encouraging as well.”
Growing hops is not for the faint of heart.
A perennial horticultural crop, hops are grown on 18 to 20-foot trellises long-term – a minimum of 15 years on a site. They can be grown on many soil types as long as drainage is good, says Elford, but under Ontario conditions hops usually require supplemental irrigation.
“It is a very labour-intensive crop and you need three years before you get to optimal yields before you start to get payback from the crop, and optimizing your irrigation as well as your fertility are key to getting optimal yields,” he says.
Hops require careful cultural management such as leaf stripping, pruning and crowning to control pests and diseases.
Specialized equipment is also a must for hops production on operations of three acres and up – air blast sprayers, special harvesters, as well as machines for drying and pelletizers for pelletizing hops are all required. Hops are usually vacuum packed, so nitrogen-purging vacuum pack equipment is also commonly used.
According to Cathy Bakker, a University of Guelph technician working on the variety evaluation trials at the Simcoe Research Station, any growers looking to get into hops for the first time should do their research first. “I would certainly caution people that if you’re used to growing field crops, this is completely different,” she says.
The OMAFRA study will be a good beginning for interested growers wondering which hops are worth the investment.
Bakker says the cultivar trials evaluated nine common commercial cultivars –Cascade, Hallertauer, Sterling, Northern Brewer, Zeus, Crystal, Chinook, Galena and Centennial, as well as a naturalized variety found in the wild, called Bertwell.
These varieties, a mix of aroma and bittering hops, are commonly used in the craft brewing industry.
For hops, yield is measured in fresh (or wet) weight, as well as dried-down weight, as hops can be sold and used in either state. Of the 10 varieties in the trial, Zeus performed the best two years out of three in terms of yield. In 2015, Zeus yielded 6000 kilograms per hectare (kg/ha) at harvest moisture and 1594 kg/ha at eight per cent moisture. Galena, Cascade and Chinook also performed well overall.
Bakker says hops might be time consuming and labour-intensive, but it’s a labour of love. “I think you have to have a passion for it – and you can make money on it,” she says.
As for Elford, he’s already looking forward to the Great Ontario Hop Beer Competition at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention next year – a competition he co-organizes with OMAFRA colleague Jason Deveau to evaluate new beer styles and allow hops growers to collaborate with craft breweries. “This year we turned people away after the competition opened. We’re looking at expanding that next year,” he says.