WINDSOR, NS - How many local ingredients are used in a bottle of brew?
Cameron Hartley, owner of Schoolhouse Brewery, sources as many ingredients locally as possible, but in some cases, the infrastructure just isn’t there yet.
“We made the commitment to have a local focus in our production,” Hartley said.
Most of the malted barley Schoolhouse uses is grown in P.E.I. Hops, however, are a bit harder to track down at the local level.
“We do use some local hops in our Scotian Export and in our fall hops series,” he said. “There just isn’t enough hops grown in Nova Scotia to sustain any brewery all year-round. It’s pretty much impossible.”
Hartley said the necessary infrastructure to grow, harvest and distribute locally-grown hops in Nova Scotia simply isn’t there - at least not yet.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good climate, especially here in the Valley, they grow like freaks of nature, but it’s that infrastructure that’s missing,” he said.
can be picked by hand, but it becomes a very labour-intensive job.
Wet hop beers use freshly picked hops that aren’t dried. Once a hop is picked, it must be put in the kettle within 12 hours. Hartley said the end result is delicious, but it takes an incredible amount of coordination to pull off.
“It makes delicious beer, no question about it,” he said.
Another challenge with local hops is consistency.
Small hop operations often don’t have the resources to have the hops tested.
Hops contain lupulin, small glands that contain alpha acids, which is how brewers measure the bitterness and taste.
If the hops aren’t tested, it’s hard to know what level of alpha acids they contain, making it hard to predict what the flavour will be.
When hops are bought from a large commercial grower, the brewer knows exactly what to expect.
“If we’re going for consistency, you really have to stick with the commercial growers that are measured,” Hartley said.
Something that could make local hops a more attractive option for Nova Scotian breweries is a pelletizer, which would allow for the hops to be stored for a longer period of time. The problem? It costs thousands of dollars.
“I believe there is the potential here,” he said.
Most of the hops come from large commercial growers based in Washington state. Typically, the hops go for $10 to $20 a pound, whereas local hops are usually double or triple that price.
“When you’re growing a business, you’ve got to be conscientious of your costs,” he said.
Grow local, drink local
Meander River Farm & Brewery in Ashdale, Hants County opened its doors about four years ago. The initial focus was growing its own hops, but that's since scaled back.
Alan Bailey, co-owner of Meander River, initially focused on working one-on-one with specific breweries but found it tricky to figure out, especially as the business pivoted towards making its own product.
“My wife and I had a dream that goes back to our university days in terms of being involved in the hop industry,” Bailey said. “It seemed like a natural segue into this business.”
Although the landscape on the farm has changed a bit, the local ingredients grown there - Hops, lavender, rosebuds, and more - end up in the product Meander River sells.
“It just made sense to use products that were nearby and readily available instead of getting them from the United States or elsewhere,” he said. “It just makes total sense.”
Meander River's primary apple provider for its cider product is a farmer in Falmouth and the malt comes from Wolfville.
“But at the end of the day, we can’t source all of our ingredients locally, so the next thing would be a provider in Central Canada, where we get some hops as well,” he said.
For some specialty products, he says, would need to be sourced from the U.S. or even Europe.
“There are people growing hops in the province, and at one point we were one of the largest growers in Nova Scotia, but the hops industry has a lot of challenges in terms of consistency and volumes,” he said. “Certain hops even have registered trademarks, which can’t be grown outside of certain parts of the United States, including some of the most popular varieties of hops used today.”
Bailey thinks the industry will need to grow a bit more before a local hop grower will be able to provide local producers everything needed to brew beer.
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Despite the difficulties, at least one local farmer is giving full-time hop farming a go, and so far, has seen some success.
Growing ‘Beer Trees’
Kelli Anderson, co-owner of Fundy Hops in Waterville, said people who visit the farm often can’t believe their eyes when they see how massive the plants can get.
Stretching almost six metres high, the massive plants cling to twine and trellises, some growing over 15 centimetres a day.
“We planted our first block of hops in 2015. It was just sort of a stay-at-home job for myself - my partner works out west and goes back and forth,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, it’ll be a retirement job, we thought.”
The initial wave was roughly 1,500 plants, approximately two acres. Anderson wanted to see how the plants would do in the Annapolis Valley climate and she was immediately thrilled with the results.
In 2018, Fundy Hops is doubling its footprint with a four-acre hop yard. It’s now the largest hop yard in Nova Scotia.
Most of their hops in 2017 were sold to Anheuser-Busch InBev for the A. Keith’s Annapolis Hop Field Ale, which is still sold at NSLC locations. Anderson partnered with other growers in the region to supply the volume of hops necessary.
The company, she says, has been able to grow so quickly in part by investing in a harvester, a pelletizer and other equipment, allowing the Andersons to harvest and ship products quickly and efficiently.
“We were sold out by November (2017),” she said with a laugh.
Another new step in the works for Fundy Hops is a potential partnership with Acadia University to study the hops to determine the optimal harvest time. Anderson was waiting to see if the funding came through for that study.
“If that happens, we’ll be able to ensure our brewers get top-quality hops,” she said. “We’re kind of new at this, so we don’t really know the best times yet. It’s a learning curve for sure.”
According to an Aug. 2 Facebook post, it's a go.
The demand for local hops shows no signs of slowing down, especially as more and more local breweries continue to pop up.
“We keep getting enquiries well after we sell out. We could probably sell 10 times what we produce,” she said. “It’ll be a really good year this year too.”
One of the biggest challenges is staffing, especially around harvest time.
“There’s just not enough people growing hops locally, there’s no way we could supply everybody in Nova Scotia, we’re just a fraction of what’s needed,” she said. “We are planning to expand again, we have another six-acre field in Chipman Brook. In the next couple of years, we’ll probably put in another four acres.”
And after that?
“We’ll have to figure out the staffing issue because it really is a lot of work,” she adds.
Still, Anderson said the stars have aligned in Nova Scotia for those interested in going all in on hops.
“Your initial investment is high, but if you’re serious about it and are willing to put in the work, you’ll get your return,” she said. “The demand is there.”