Francis Gagné and Anne-Marie Lessard wanted to make some changes. The St. Bernard, Quebec farmers raised hogs and broilers, and grew cash crops. But they wanted to exit the pork business, and start a new farm venture.
After looking at everything from vineyards to fruit and vegetables, they settled on growing hops. That decision was due to a combination of soil type, a nearby river that would provide water for irrigation, and demand.
Lessard and Gagné held onto the broilers (they currently have two houses of 25,000 birds each). Equity in the poultry business and the farm land helped them obtain financing for the hop operation. They’re still in the early stages, but currently have eight hectares in hop production, and grow nine varieties, with plans to expand.
Already their hop operation, Houblon des Jarrets Noirs, is one of the largest in Quebec. There are currently about 30 hop growers in Quebec. But Jarrets Noirs and one other grower produce more than the other 28 combined, Gagné says, speaking through a translator during a Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation tour.
Quebec farmers aren’t the only ones who see potential in hops. Sandra Gowan worked for the Canadian Grain Commission in Winnipeg for several years. In 2003, drawing on her greenhouse and horticulture education, she started a small business growing edible flowers and bedding plants. A few years later her husband, Paul Ebbinghaus, showed her an article about the market demand for hops. In 2009, Prairie GEM Hops was born. Today she has 0.25 acres of hops under production, and grows 19 different varieties.
How to grow hops
Hops climb, and so hop growers need to sink large posts in the fields. They then string cables between the posts, and run line down from the cables so the plants can reach for the sun. Gagné says it takes them about two months to set up a new hop field.
At Jarrets Noirs, they plant seedlings by hand after spring frosts have passed. By the end of the summer, the seedlings should reach the top of the wire, says Gagné. It takes two years for those plants to yield enough for harvest, but once established, the plants will live for 20 years or more.
Gowan sells rhizomes to other hops growers. She explains they dig rhizomes in mid to late April, and ship them for immediate planting.
Hops prefer a lighter, slightly acidic, soil, such as the volcanic ash soil found in Washington State, says Gowan. Gowan’s soil is quite heavy, but the hops still do fine.
“One thing about it, it retains water quite well. Hops like a lot of water. And there are a lot of nutrients in our soil, which helps.” But, she says, some varieties might struggle in a wet cool year. Iron chlorosis could also be an issue.
They do add some chemical fertilizer, and use a lot of compost, says Gowan. Gagné says most of their fertilizer is added to the drip irrigation, but they also compost the plant debris after harvest.
Each variety has its own aroma or bitterness, Gagné says. The same variety can take on different flavours depending on processing.
Gowan says that the hops’ taste is also affected by terroir, or environmental factors such as soil, terrain, and climate. For example, Chinook hops typically have a citrus and pine aroma.
“And our Chinook, it really takes on a lemony aroma,” she says.
Both Gagné and Gowan have found that American hops varieties tend to do well on their farms. Gowan thinks it may be because the American varieties are better acclimated to Manitoba’s hot summers.
Gagné has also had success with British varieties, but German varieties have not fared well on Gowan or Gagné’s farms so far.
Gowan knows people growing hops around Edmonton. She suggests northern growers select short-season varieties.
“The plants will take quite a bit of frost, but if you have a hard frost, what it does is kind of dry out the cones really quickly,” she says. Those cones will shatter.
Many hop varieties have a Canadian influence, Gowan says. For example, Brewer’s Gold and Bullion varieties were developed through the open pollination of wild Manitoba hops. Both varieties are ancestors to many other hops varieties.
Asked why there were no Quebec varieties yet, Gagné says that from what he understands it would take 10 years and several million to develop a made-in-Quebec variety.
Pests and weeds
Gagné says insect issues can vary from one area to another. In another location, they have problems with caterpillars, he says. At the location the media toured, they’ve had issues with microscopic bugs that introduce disease to the plants. Gagné adds they’ve introduced predatory insects to control pests.
Gowan says aphids, spider mites, and potato leaf hoppers are all pests. She says they’ve used insecticidal soap and Pyrethrin. But insecticides also wipe out beneficial insects, so they don’t spray if they don’t have to. This summer, Asian lady beetles were plentiful in Winnipeg, providing excellent control of aphids, she says.
Hops are also susceptible to diseases such as powdery mildew and downy mildew. “It’s quite common for those diseases to appear in a hop yard” so hop growers need to keep on top of them, Gowan says.
Hop growers can remove diseased material or use fungicides. Organic methods are also available. For example, Gowan is thinking about using Regalia bio-fungicide (made by Marrone Bio Innovations). Regalia uses plant hormones to spur the plant into fighting the infection, Gowan explains.
Weed control is another consideration, as hops won’t do well if grasses or taller weeds infest the hop yard, Gowan says. Jarrets Noirs’ hops fields have black plastic mulch covering the rows, with mown grass between the rows. Gowan manually hoes weeds to keep them under control.
Harvesting and processing
Gowan outlines three indicators that hops are ready for harvest:
- Colour change — cones turn light green.
- When you crush the cone, it’s springy and feels like paper.
- Golden yellow lupulin within the cone (as opposed to a pale yellow). Lupulin glands are found under the bracteoles (leaf-like structures), and lupulin itself looks like powder. It’s the active ingredient in hops.
Yield depends on variety, says Gowan. They have one Cascade plant growing on a windmill that yields four lbs of dried hops, but that may be exceptional. “You can expect anywhere from one to two pounds of dried product per plant, as kind of a general rule.”
Right now Prairie GEM hires family and friends to hand-harvest the hops. This year harvest ran nearly three weeks in September. Gowan says they’re working with a man in the Winnipeg area to build a custom harvester. It harvests the plants quickly, but doesn’t effectively separate the cones from the leaves.
“We’re hoping that it will work eventually,” she says.
There are no hops machinery manufacturers in North America, Gagné says. But in Germany, hops farms have consolidated, and smaller harvesters are available. In fact, U.S. companies import and refurbish them, Gowan says.
Jarrets Noirs hires 10 seasonal workers, from Mexico, who help with spring cleanup and harvest (the employees also work at neighbouring fruit and vegetable operations). Gagné says they also decided to import a German harvester. Workers place plants on the machine, which then separates the cones from the plant. Gagné says it processes about 100 plants an hour.
The hops collect in bins, before they’re loaded into a dryer with a forklift. Gagné says they don’t let the dryer get hotter than 70 C, as they don’t want to scorch the hops.
The hops start out at anywhere from 65 to 75 per cent moisture. After six hours in the dryer, they’re down to eight to 10 per cent moisture. The hops then sit for up to 12 hours, before being baled and left for another month to condition. Gagné says the hops are then pelleted and packaged.
Gowan’s crew also dries the hops to 10 per cent moisture, using a dryer. Then they vacuum seal and freeze the hops. Gowan says hops will oxidize and spoil if exposed to oxygen. Heat and light damage them as well. But once stored properly, they can last a couple of years.
How they’re packaged matters to brewers. Whole hops tend to plug brewery equipment, Gowan says. At interview time, Prairie GEM Hops was setting up recently acquired pelleting equipment.
Both Prairie GEM Hops and Houblon des Jarrets Noirs focus mainly on craft brewers. Craft brewers want good quality, but are not worried about consistency year to year, in Gowan’s experience.
In the last year, Jarrets Noirs has signed three contracts with major breweries, Gagné says, but small breweries are still their principal business. Most of their customers are in Quebec, but they also sell to a few microbreweries in the Maritimes and Ontario. Hop prices depend on variety, ranging from $25 per kg to $39 per kg. Prices are based on five kilogram packages.
Jarrets Noirs has branded clothing and brochures, all targeted towards microbreweries. They even have a slick promotional video, shot with a drone, showcasing hops production on the farm. They also participate in microbrewery tradeshows.
Prairie GEM attends events, too, such as Winnipeg’s Flatlanders Beer Festival. Gowan says they’ve also held open houses, inviting Manitoba craft breweries and staff from the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre. The day includes lunch, a tour of the hops yard, and a chance for brewers and other industry to network.
Gowan says that there is room for more suppliers in her market. The hops grown in Manitoba are “a drop in the bucket compared to what the breweries would use.”
Other uses for hops
Any fan of Indian Pale Ale (IPA) likely knows that hops add that bitter punch to beer. And while beer is the main market for hops, they have other uses as well.
Francis Gagné, owner of Houblon des Jarrets Noirs, says that while microbreweries are the main focus, he has a few clients who use hops for tea, essential oils, pillows and ciders.
Sandra Gowan, owner of Prairie GEM Hops, says researchers are looking at medicinal properties of hops. The University of Michigan Medicine website notes hops are often combined with valerian root to treat insomnia, and there is some evidence suggesting thatthetreatmentiseffective.
Gowan has found another use for hops: soap. She makes beer and hop soap, and sells it direct, as well as in Winnipeg taprooms such as Barn Hammer Brewing. The soap doesn’t smell like beer, she says. In fact, beer creates a nice lather and is more conditioning than regular soap. Hops oxidize in the bars, adding an exfoliating property.
Prairie GEM Hops matches their soaps to the beer’s characteristics. For example, an oatmeal stout soap would include some ground oatmeal and a subtle coffee aroma. IPA soap would have a citrus fragrance.
Still, brewers are the biggest users of hops. Asked which beer he would recommend, Gagné had a straight-forward recommendation.
“IPA. More hops in IPA.”