Day 4

Although we don’t have classes on Saturday, students were invited to take part in a hop harvest in the Guelph area. Luckily, although it had rained on the previous four days, the sun finally shone from a cloudless sky today.

Several years ago, Mike Driscoll, an organic farmer, found wild hops growing in Prince Edward County and transplanted some cuttings to his farm. Those “took” successfully, and Mike was able to add hops to his organic farm. For the past two years, he has invited hop growers, craft brewers and the Brewmaster students at Niagara College to his “Harvest Hop”–an opportunity to pick hops, discuss the past season of hop growing, and of course, to drink some beer.

After we arrived, Mike took us down to his hop frame, and showed us the hop flowers clustered thickly on the vines. He opened one and showed us the yellow lupulin glands that contain the valuable alpha acids and aromatic oils so highly prized by brewers. Because Mike grew his vines from wild plants, he is unsure of their origin and name, so he called his new variety “Bertwell”. One of the other hop growers had brought some of his own freshly picked “Cascade” and “Hallertau” hops with him, so we compared the aromas of all three. The Cascade had a sharply citrus smell, which has become a hallmark of the North American pale ale and IPA styles. The Hallertau had a much more floral, grassy scent. Mike’s Bertwell hops, with their sharp, spicy smell, had more in common with the Cascade than the Hallertau, but were more earthy, less citrus-y. Mike speculated that Bertwell could be a wild hybrid of Cascade and another variety.

Then it was on to the picking portion of the programme.  Hops grow in the form of a vine. Like ivy, it starts from the ground, and searches for something to climb. Once it has wound itself around a rope, chain, tree or other object, it can climb to quite a height. Mike has set up a framework of ropes so that his hop plants can climb about 3 m (12 ft), but in larger commercial operations, the frames to support the hop vines can be over 6 m (25 ft) tall.

Once the vines have climbed the framework provided for them, the plants (being female) produce flowers that send out their hoppy aromas, designed to entice bees and other pollenators. Certainly the bees and other insects arrive, but alas for the lonely female plants, the bees arrive without any dusting of pollen from male plants, since there are no male plants growing on or near Mike’s farm. The female plants, wretched and despondent, spend their days watching reality TV shows. Meanwhile, their unfertilized flowers are ready to be harvested.

Harvesting hops

Brewmaster students talk shop while they harvest hops.

Mike climbed up on a ladder and carefully lowered some of the vines to the ground. From there it was simply a matter of  manual labour as we carefully pulled the cone-shaped flowers off of the vines and dropped them into baskets. Mike took the baskets to a small greenhouse, where he spread the hops out on screens (to allow for air circulation) and left them to dry overnight, which reduces the water content to about 10%.

The picking was very labour-intensive–it took a dozen of us two hours to pick all the flowers off of just six vines, about a third of Mike’s Bertwell plants. (Mike also planted some Tettnang hops, but as other Ontario hop growers have experienced, the Tettnang vines have not thrived, perhaps due to soil chemistry, perhaps due to the climate.) As an organic farmer, Mike also has to contend with pests and weeds without resorting to chemicals, resulting in a crop that requires a lot of work to maintain, and even more work to harvest by hand.

After we were finished, it was time for–what else–a cold craft-brewed beer. In pioneer days, hops were considered an essential crop, but the last commercial operation in Ontario closed in the 1920s. Now some small independent farmers are trying to produce an Ontario hop crop. Because it is a manually intensive crop to harvest, most small farms can only handle about one acre of hops per season. As we listened to the various hop growers reporting on their growing season, it was easy to sense that successfully growing hops and finding a ready market for them was a concern. Whether the solution is to form a cooperative that could buy and share harvesting machinery, or meet with a group of craft brewers to hammer out some sort of long-term agreement on future hop harvests, remains to be seen.

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3 Comments on “Day 4”

  1. Heh. Wretched and despondent.

  2. […] board for the Brewmaster program, and an organic hop farmer whom I had previously met at his September hop harvest. For 90 minutes, Mike gave us a glimpse of the international hop market and the trials and […]

  3. […] was a lot of fun last year, and had the added benefit of being quite educational, as well as a good opportunity to meet many […]

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