Gaining Ground in Grimsby: Mountain Top Hops

By: Adrienne Roman

It’s no wonder the International Herb Association named it the 2018 Herb of The Year.  The history of the Humulus Lupulus, better known as the hop plant, was first documented in the 1st century AD when its female cones were used for beer preservation on long nautical journeys from Europe. A flowering perennial with an abundance of uses, the plant’s hop cone is best known for adding bitterness or aroma to beer and is a popular crop choice among both small scale and larger commercial farmers in Ontario.

According to the 2018 market and acreage update from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Farms and Rural Affairs, this cousin to cannabis took flight in Ontario between 2011 and 2017, helped by boron-rich soil and the humid temperate climate.

After a notable decline in hop production due to disease and Prohibition in the early 20th century, Canadian brewers have traditionally relied on the importation of the majority of their hops from Europe and the US Northwest. With the explosion of the craft beer industry in recent years, Ontario brewers are once again enjoying the demand, and many are buying fresh hops from local sources whenever possible.  Whether appreciated for its culinary, medicinal or ornamental use, Ontario is currently producing over 30 aromatic and bittering cultivars providing brewers and consumers a variety of hop options.

Quality Over Quantity

Phil Barry decided he wanted to investigate crop options for his custom-built 18-acre farm in Grimsby, Ontario. Above all, the Burlington Fire Department Captain and Platoon Chief aspired to build a small-scale operation that focused on quality over quantity. Mountain Top Hops was born from the desire to grow a reliable local product and connect with his community. Having spent many years living and working in the farming community of Oakwood, Ontario, Barry decided to try out his first 2-acre hop test plot build in 2016. With some valuable direction from Kyle Wynette of the Tavistock Hop Company, third place winners of the 2019 Great Ontario Craft Beer Competition, he set up a plan and a soil-testing program with The Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. Wanting to support Canadian businesses, he sourced his Waterford Lodgepole pine from British Columbia, and aircraft cable from The Good Rope Company in Oakville, Ontario.

Equipment and agronomics aside, Barry understood the potential risks of working with this often labor-intensive crop and the challenges he would need to address. “There were issues with time, commitment, careers, and of course the substantial investments in infrastructure and specialized equipment,” he said.

As with any worthwhile enterprise, Barry and his wife, Rebecca were confident that patience, combined with a solid foundation of knowledge, would balance out any of the difficulties along the way.  North American hops are often thought to have a higher resistance to Downey mildew than some of the European varietals, but tackling pest control for aphids and spider mites was more of an initial concern than soil fertility or disease.  His test build proved successful, and he’s expanded over the 2017/2018 seasons, resulting in wet hop sales to The Exchange Brewery in Niagara-On-The-Lake.  Mountain Top Hops also supplies pellet hops and is planning on increasing the hop yard to six acres within a few years. Their cultivars currently include Centennial, Newport, Cascade, and Cluster. According to the 2017 Hop Growers of America statistical report of acreage grown in the Pacific Northwest, Cascade remains at the top, followed by Centennial, Citra HBC 394, and Simcoe YCR 14.

“My favorite is Cascade, I love the citrus aroma, and in my opinion, I feel it’s the backbone of a great IPA,” Barry said.

Mountain Top Hops also grows the noble hop Hallertau, AlphAroma, Yakima Gold, Perle, and Crystal. With 1200 plants and 600 lbs harvested in their second year, they’re in a good position for expansion.

With breweries buying hops from all over the world, “the true challenge lies in consistently making a good quality product,” said Albert Witteveen, President of the Ontario Hop Growers Association (OHGA).  “It’s a maturing industry; people want to drink great beer.

Witteveen told Beverage Master Magazine Ontario is particularly suited for growing Canadian hops. “Geographically we’re not like anywhere else, our moderated weather between the Lakes puts us in a good position compared to other locations that deal with more volatile weather patterns. “

Locally Sourced

A greater appreciation of high-quality products has many Canadian consumers giving their business to smaller, more intimate brewpubs where they can enjoy a personalized experience and a sense of community. The food and beverage movement in Ontario has brewers exploring innovative recipes that are moving away from the mainstream, and sourcing local ingredients like malt, honey and fruit whenever possible.

There will always be an abundant supply of high-alpha hop varietals from the commercial producers in Yakima Valley, Washington, or Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, but with Ontario’s craft beer sales exceeding $300 million in 2018, the need for quality hops is rapidly expanding.  Ontario breweries are working on local experimental projects and increasing collaboration with brewing programs like Durham College’s Centre For Craft Brewing Innovation to highlight local brands. This state-of-the-art location features a 50-liter pilot brew line and lab, allowing brewers the opportunity to work with advanced technology and micro-analytical services, and “conduct scientific analyses to ensure the analytical and microbiological integrity of the beer, supporting this growing sector of the local economy. “

With brewers and farming communities developing craft industry networks, there’s also increasing support coming from New York and Michigan to promote some of Ontario’s distinguished brands.

More Than Beer

Microbreweries are forging forward and according to Witteveen, “Nano-breweries are gaining popularity, and farmers are seeing their longevity there. “ Even smaller in scale than a microbrewery, nano-breweries typically produce less than 3,000 barrels annually.  Farmers can now diversify their product line with the addition of brewing capability on their property, and simultaneously expand sales locally, regionally, and internationally.

With approximately 400 different compounds found in hop oil, it’s readily used in many products in the culinary and medicinal arenas that extend well beyond the craft beer market.

The lupulin found in the hop cone glands is recognized for its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial qualities and used as a pain reliever, nervous system relaxant, and antimicrobial. The plant-derived compounds present in lupulin are thought to influence the human endocrine system. Researchers at The University of Kentucky are looking at the promising test results from studies utilizing hops to control fructan fermentation in the treatment of laminitis in horses.

Ontario Values

Barry’s farming philosophy closely echoes the principles that are found in the fire service. Mountain Top Hops was established to give his three children the opportunity to better understand the importance of integrity, adapting to change, honest hard work, and patience.

Ontario farmers are rooted in these same values, connected to their land and to each other. Vital relationships of trust form when consumers understand where their products originate and get to hear the personal story behind the brand.  Last year the province of Ontario supported the craft beer industry with funding from The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation, investing over $5 million in 16 microbreweries.  The 2018 budget has this support increasing to $150 million by 2021.

Locally bought hops are boosting Ontario’s agricultural economy, and the governments commitment to continue supporting the craft beer industry is allowing many local farmers the freedom to expand their operations, increase tourism, and create new jobs and opportunities for emerging local businesses in communities across Canada.

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