No one knows for sure when hops were first used in beer, but they were introduced for a very practical reason: hops are natural preservatives. When the British Empire was colonizing much of the world, wherever it sent its soldiers, beer seemed to follow. Rumour has it that India Pale Ale was created specifically for troops stationed in India — regular pale ale was hopped up to keep it from spoiling during the months-long voyage from Britain. Hops also affect the taste, aroma and bitterness of beer, and today are one of the four key ingredients used in brewing (along with water, yeast and grain).
But hops come in handy for more than just beer. According to the British Hop Association, “The modern hop has been developed from a wild plant as ancient as history itself. As far back as the first century A.D. they were described as a salad plant and are believed to originate from Egypt.” Today they can be found in soaps and candies, and due to their qualities as a sedative are used in herbal teas and sachets as sleep aids.
Hops arrived in Canada in the mid-1600s, and were a common crop across Southwestern Ontario up to the early 1900s. A delegation from Britain, on a fact finding tour of Canada in 1879, noted the presence of hops fields several times in its “Reports of Tenant Farmers’ Delegates on the Dominion of Canada as a Field for Settlement.” When the delegates stopped in London they reported: “Visited Mr. Carling’s, M.P., extensive breweries … The barley and hops are grown in the neighbourhood.”
“There were hop fields in most cities, mainly because there was so much brewing going on, but with rail transportation crops could be brought in from further afield, and a lot of hop fields were converted to tobacco,” says Paul Coriveau from Railway City Brewing Company. Prohibition, then later the establishment of large breweries that wiped out most small independent brewers, and the growing demand for tobacco, all contributed to the decline in Ontario hop crops, which all but disappeared from the rural landscape in the early 1900s.
In recent years a resurgence in craft brewing has brought hops back into favour as a crop. Small scale brewers have a thirst for locally grown ingredients, and in response many farmers have reintroduced hops to their fields. Railroad City uses 10 to 12 different varieties of hops in its beers, some grown in Elgin County, and Coriveau says the brewery does try to use as many locally grown hops as possible.
The owners of the London Brewing Co-op have been growing and experimenting with different kinds of hops in their homemade beers since 2007. “We’ve been growing hops in our backyard gardens right here in the city,” says David Thuss. “Hops play a dramatic role in the taste of a beer.” With the transition from home brewing to a commercial venture (the beer brewing cooperative produced its first keg in September 2014) the company has had to purchase to augment its supply of hops. Like other local craft brewers, it tries to source them close to home.
That can be challenging because brewers need to be sure they can get consistent quality and reliable quantities at a feasible price point. Our climate is not kind to some varieties of hops, and some farmers are still experimenting to see which types will thrive and give the best yield.
Down the highway in Norfolk County, husband and wife team Tim Wilson and Melanie Doerksen are in their fifth growing season at the Carolinian Hop Yard and just starting to see some of their hop plants hit their stride. Like other growers, the Carolinian Hop Yard started small, and less than four acres of the farm is currently planted with hops.
Doerksen sat on the board of the Ontario Hops Growers Association for three years, recently stepping down but still involved as a member of the OHGA. There are now 34 growers across the province, with about 60 acres of hops — tiny when compared to other cash crops, but increasing steadily as existing growers expand their acreage and new growers hop into the market.
It’s a big gamble and an expensive undertaking to get hops into the field, says Doerksen. She notes the impact of blight, pests, moulds and mildew, and the need to experiment with varietals. “Craft brewers are looking to purchase specific varietals, but not all can be established here. It depends on the needed heat, humidity, and growing season.” Doerksen and Wilson have experienced enough success that they plan to expand to a full four acres of hops next year, which can only be good news for local brew masters and the hop heads who are driving the trend.
A mere decade ago you would have been hard pressed to find a hoppy brew at the beer store, or a crop of hops in any local fields. The extra kick in many craft beers started the trend to use more and different combinations of hops, and now it seems every brewer, large or small, is on their own pursuit of hoppy-ness!
Kym Wolfe enjoys hopping into history and occasionally indulging in a well crafted beer. You can find her at www.kymwolfe.com