by Vern Faulkner
The formula for beer remains relatively unchanged: barley, water, yeast, perhaps malt, and hops. It is the latter, the flower of a vine-like plant, that lends bitterness and flavour to beer.
And as the number of craft breweries has grown in New Brunswick, so too has the number of farmers growing hops to supply the increasing demand.
Nine years ago, Bob Fitzgerald of Lunahops farm in Cornhill, N.B., turned a tragedy elsewhere into a farming career.
“We heard that there was … a huge fire in a warehouse in the States, and something ridiculous, like a million pounds of hops, were burned,” he said. The spike in prices made the idea of starting a hop farm tempting.
Almost a decade ago, there were few local brew pubs, craft brewers, and hop farmers in Atlantic Canada.
“When we first started, there was only Picaroons (in Fredericton), Pumphouse (in Moncton), and Garrisons in Halifax,” said Fitzgerald.
Now there are some 30 craft breweries in New Brunswick alone, something Fitzgerald admitted caught him by surprise when he paused to tabulate the growth.
“I knew it was taking off, but I didn’t realize it was that big,” he said.
As one of the pioneers of Maritime hop farming, Fitzgerald tried to reach out to growers elsewhere in the continent for advice.
“When we first started, there was no real information on how to grow hops in the Maritimes,” he said. “Nobody had really done it.”
In the end, information on growing hops in places such as Quebec and Colorado simply didn’t apply in New Brunswick. Certainly, information from the southern U.S. was of little use because of Atlantic Canada’s much shorter growing season.
That means Fitzgerald has learned the hard way, by doing it himself. Some varieties didn’t work well here, and he has shifted his focus to a few select varieties that do. These days, as one of the veterans in the young industry, he makes sure other Maritimes hop growers don’t have to tackle the same learning curve by offering some mentoring to others.
In fact, he welcomes curious would-be growers to come by his farm to help out for a day or two and see what the industry involves.
It’s been eye-opening for some, said Fitzgerald, explaining that a few of those who have come to test drive hop farming have abandoned that plan after seeing how difficult it can be.
The involvement is “a bit of work, and the initial setup is a lot of work: you have to build a huge trellis,” Fitzgerald explained.
The hop plant can grow as tall as five metres, but does not grow tendrils as true vines do. A relative of the cannabis plant, the flower’s resins and acids impart much of the flavour – including the bitterness – in modern craft beers.
When he started, Fitzgerald launched on 10 acres, but rapidly realized that would entail too much work. That scale demanded some eight to 10 people working the farm. He has since downscaled, and now works 4.5 acres with two full-time employees and some part-time help.
From being one of the first hop farmers in the province and the Maritimes, Fitzgerald now belongs to the Maritime Hop Growers Co-operative, working with other farmers to meet demand for bulk orders, and working as a liaison to fill requests for specific hop plant varieties.
Many craft brews are described as “hoppy.” Compared to industrial breweries, small-batch brewers tend to use more hops and different varieties to create a wide array of flavours.
The local beer movement has embraced locally grown hops, according to Thomas Frauley, a brewer and bartender at Big Tide Brewing in Saint John.
Big Tide sources most of its hops from Darlings Island Farm, about an hour’s drive away from Canada’s first incorporated city.
“We get 90 percent of our hops from Darlings Island,” said Frauley. The other source is one of the staples in the province’s growing hop farming industry: Southan Farms in Wicklow.
Big Tide brewmaster Wendy Papadopoulos calls the growth in the Maritime craft brewing industry “expansive.”
“Darlings Island hops enhance our product and brand positioning in a market that is becoming increasingly competitive,” she said, adding that the three-year relationship with the local farmer seems poised to grow on both sides of the equation.
Papadopoulos noted that brewers are invited to visit the farm to better understand the growing process and grasp the quality of the locally grown product.
“The farm-to-glass approach that Darlings Island Farm takes is innovative and a tremendous asset and competitive advantage for the breweries that they work with,” she said.
Likewise, Celtic Knot Brewing in Riverview, N.B., tries to buy local hops as much as possible, according to owner and manager Bruce Barton.
That’s welcome news to five-year farmer Yan Desjardins of Brooks-Bridge Hops farm near Grand Falls, N.B. He grows hops on a modest one acre, having deemed hops a more affordable entry crop.
“We bought the property, and they were renting it for potatoes, but getting into potato farming is quite expensive,” he said.
He’s watched the spike in area brew pubs lead to a demand for more local product.
“The last couple of years, it’s been a bit better,” said Desjardins. “At the beginning, it was hard to get the breweries to try our stuff because they didn’t expect as good a quality.”
One of the challenges of growing hops in the Maritimes is the humidity. However, said Desjardins, “We’ve been able to get some good quality and good quantity, up to par per acre compared to what they can grow somewhere else.”
The demand has led Desjardins to undertake a steady expansion plan.
“We put a little more in the ground, every year,” he said.
The downside to hop farming is the long lead time to a profitable crop. It takes at least two years before any product is produced. In fact, after five years, this may be the first season where the year-end result at Brooks-Bridge Hops is written in black ink instead of red.
“Maybe this year, we’re going to start to turn a profit on it, if everything goes well,” said Desjardins.