Why Western Canada is wild about hops

The production of hops, a flavouring and preserving ingredient in beer, is slowly returning to Western Canada, particularly British Columbia.

“I think B.C. is now more than the rest of the country combined at this point,” says Ray Bredenhof, founder and chairman of the British Columbia Hop Growers Association.

He estimates provincial hops acres between 400 and 500, with the bulk of that in the Fraser Valley.

Craft beer expansion

About 90 per cent of current production was planted in the last five years, thanks to the craft beer industry, Bredenhof says.

The last of B.C.’s big hops farms closed in 1997, at a time when fewer than a dozen craft breweries existed in the province. That number’s since climbed to nearly 150, he says.

“People’s tastes in beers have changed, so the needs of the brewers have changed away from bulk commodity bitter and hops to the more specialized aroma hops.”

Washington State remains the largest hops producer in North America, but B.C.’s craft brewers have put value into using local product, and he predicts that demand and ideal growing conditions will lead to more hops being grown.

Prairie provinces

In Manitoba, current hops acres are below 30, says Craig Linde, Manitoba Agriculture’s diversification specialist at Canada-Manitoba Crop Diversification Centre.

He remains uncertain about the province’s rate of future growth.

“We can grow hops here, but it’s not a crop that’s easily grown,” Linde says.

He notes a large investment is required up front, with no major return in the first year. Hops are also affected by many common pests already in Manitoba, and growing them is very labour intensive, even with mechanization. Manitoba is also near the limits of hops’ frost-free day requirements.

Increased competition

But intensifying competition between local breweries might drive some of them to differentiate their products by focussing more on local ingredients, Linde says.

“Public demand for locally brewed craft beer, ag tourism, and general natural health food/supplement markets seem to be growing, and hops fit nicely into all of these,” Linde says.

Members of the recently formed Alberta Hop Producers’ Association only have about half a dozen planted acres up to now, but president Wade Bendfeld is extremely positive about the future.

He says every craft brewer the group’s contacted asks about when they can try members’ hops, and adds the expanding home brewing market is another segment to access.

Bottom line

B.C. is leading the way in renewed hops production interest across Canada and competition between breweries may drive locally grown hops.

Article by: Richard Kamchen