Hop Growing in the Thompson Okanagan – Square One Hop Growers

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I asked Brent and Kari Tarasoff what was behind the name of their hop yard, Square One Hops. They told me it had two meanings for them. First Kari explained “it all starts here”, on a farm, where you need to grow good quality ingredients to wind up with good quality beer. Brent added that as they have come to the Okanagan to start growing hops after 30 years in Saskatchewan growing grains and oil seeds, it also signifies starting over again at Square One in this new field. 

They told me they were looking for a change, and after seeing the staggering number of vineyards in the area they decided to do something a little different. Being huge fans of craft beer they saw a niche in a growing market and felt like this was an opportunity to contribute to that industry without having to take on the task of starting a brewery or a restaraunt. Kari explained they would rather be in the background, working on their own property. Being big IPA fans they enjoy drinking beer made with their hops, and are looking forward to hopefully seeing more local breweries incorporate their ingredients. Last year The Barley Mill Brewpub in Penticton used their hops in an IPA that was so popular it sold out before they were even able to try any of it.

They certainly chose a scenic location for their hopyard. Nestled in among vineyards and wineries on the road between Penticton and Naramata, their property borders the popular KVR trail. They have attracted a lot of attention from passersby on the trail, some of whom have never seen hops before and assume it’s some sort of very tall grape plant. Some of the older generations that come by are more familiar with hops and say that they used to pick them back when there used to be many more hop farms in the province.

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While the bines look pretty healthy already, they will continue to ‘green up’ as the season progresses

Brent explained that while they are new to growing hops, they have a lot of experience in growing, and this has put them ahead of the curve in getting good production out of their plants. He showed me 3 year old bines (the term for a vertical vine) growing next to one year old bines, and it was hard to tell the difference between the two which indicates very healthy growth already. He still continues to do consulting work for roughly 40 farms back east, so clearly he knows how to grow!

They had a small harvest last year of about 70 plants, which yielded 150 lbs of hops. This year they have about 1,750 planted with a bit more planned to go in once they finish building their shop. Although they’ve only been on the property since last March they have 1, 2 and 3 year old plants as they were able to get some older plants as well as rhizomes. Most of their hops come from Ontario with a few from the Pacific Northwest. They have 17 varieties growing, although they laughed as they said for some of those varieties there are only 2 or 3 plants, which will more likely go towards home brewing endeavors with their friends and family. They have Columbus, Centennial, Cascade, Chinook, Glacier, Hallertau, Magnum, Mount Hood, Nugget, Willamette, Super Alpha, Pacific Gem, Galena, Crystal Triple Pearle and Sterling.

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Burrs (hop flowers) in development on the bine

Brent’s prior experience farming also paid off in that they had some awareness of the work required on a farm. In contrast to the large-scale farming they were doing before, however, growing hops is very labour intensive for the square footage user to produce them. To get started they had to drive 6×6 treated poles into the ground and set up the wire trellis system 20 feet above ground. The baby hop plants were planted in rows with compost to help get them started, then twine is strung from the wires down to be tethered two to a plant for the bines to climb up. Drip irrigation is laid out along each row, with the option to do ‘fertigation’ feeding when they update the system next year.

With the initial work to get the hop-yard established, then there is endless maintenance to do, as each bine needs to be trained onto the twine, and shoots cut on plants 2 years and older. The rows need to be sprayed for weeds, and hand weeding in between the vines. As the hops get bigger some growers opt to remove the leaves from the first few feet of the bines, but this hasn’t been found to be necessary yet. About a half dozen applications of foliar fertilizer have already been applied, as well as spraying for downey and powdery mildew. Fortunately they have been finding few pests are attracted to the bines, there is already a well-established ladybug population taking care of the occasional aphids that they have seen on the leaves. Other pests are moles – they trapped about 100 last year – and also cutworms in the spring. Otherwise most other animals are not interested in eating the tough, spikey bines and pretty much leave them alone.

In the fall they will harvest the hop bines by cutting them down from the trellis and – lucky them – running the bines through their brand-new hop harvester. Last year they said it took 90 hours to pick the cones from 70 plants, so you can imagine with 1,750 plants a harvester would be a necessity. Finally in the fall compost is added to the crowns to prepare them for another busy season the following year.

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Look at all those future hops! Now these are some happy plants! 

I asked about expansion and Brent laughed, saying he is already as busy as he can be with the current workload. He said maybe down the road they might look to grow more, but at the time being they wouldn’t be able to put in anything further unless they had a crew working there. Kari stated that in the Okanagan the cost for land and production is high compared to the value of the final product. In areas like Yakima they have access to cheaper land and cheaper labour, making it much more affordable to grow hops on giant acreages.

I asked what their advice would be for someone thinking about starting a small-scale hop yard. Brent told me that when attending a hop growers conference in Ontario the number one issue for small growers was quality. If the hops aren’t well managed breweries are not interested. Interestingly organic hops were even harder to sell, as they were associated with being of less quality than regular hops, and there wasn’t much demand. However, this doesn’t mean hops are loaded with chemicals, as Brent explained that farmers will never spray more than they absolutely have to as that is extra work and extra money.

The other challenge Kari told me is marketing. Being relatively new on the scene, they don’t have a standing contract for their hops like some other hop producers do. They will be selling whole-hops this year, but are considering adding a pelletizer as this is usually the preferred form for most breweries. They will be doing alpha acid tests, likely using the new lab in Vancouver, which will determine the level of bittering agents in the hops – a necessity for commercial sales. They have interested breweries in Alberta, but are also hoping that local breweries will be looking to use a product grown close to home. They joked that they were thinking of doing an “adopt a hop” program to get breweries out to the farm to tend the hops that would wind up in their beer, but figured the brewers might be put off by the amount of work the plants require!

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It’s a bit unusual to see Barley and Grapes growing side-by-side in the Okanagan!

As they had a small area of the yard unsuitable for trellising, they planted some barley – a whole .05 of an acres worth! Brent thinks if they can harvest by hand and find a small thresher they could get about 300lbs of grain which they could malt themselves and potentially have an ultra-local beer made!

Kari and Brent have also connected with a few of the other hop-growers in the area, and they are all comparing notes on their projects so far – as while hops were historically grown in the area it is a learning process as they are being reintroduced. A smart business move on their behalf is that they are entertaining the idea of renting out their harvester (and pelletizer if they go that route) to other growers, thereby removing the financial barrier of all the local growers buying expensive equipment, and helping them get back some of their initial investment on equipment. It is nice to see the same sense of camaraderie in the hop-growing community as there is in the beer-making community.

We shared a couple of cold IPAs together after the tour and I’m happy to report that Brent and Kari also have excellent taste in beer. There are plans for a home-brewers event on the property later this summer, and I’m also hoping to get out again at harvest time to check out the process and possibly pick up some fresh hops to brew with! It was really neat to get my first in-depth look at a commercial hop-yard, especially one that is just getting established. With owners as warm and welcoming as Kari and Brent, I’m sure that we’ll be seeing Square One Hops featured in some excellent BC Craft Beer very soon.

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