Hop Growing in the Thompson Okanagan – Hops Canada

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I met Joey Bedard at a gas station on the outskirts of Kamloops. After making sure I had a vehicle that could handle a bit of a rough road, we headed out to Tk’emlups te Secwepemc, the Kamloops First Nations reserve where Hops Canada has their massive hop farm under development. I have a pretty good sense of direction, but there is no way I’d be able to find my way back there now, as we took several turns on small paved streets on the reserve, then dirt roads along and across the railway track, where I got my first glimpse of the massive trellis system that just went on and on.

Joined by his border collie/Aussie mix, Cowboy, we drove around the hop yard in the truck. Not much to see except for dusty roads and rows upon rows of hops. Joey is quite the talker, and I was taking notes as fast as I could write. This isn’t his first business venture, he started out supplementing travelling with working in construction, which took him from Ontario to BC and several international projects. At one point he had contracts with several First Nations working on fishing lodges, which helped make the connection with the Kamloops Band. He eventually wound up working for a larger firm in Fort Mac, which then was bought out leaving him with money to invest in a new project.

Having helped his family set up a 20 acre hop farm back in Ontario, as well as being a fan of craft beer, he was looking for an opportunity at three different BC locations for a large-scale hop yard, when he settled on the location in Kamloops. Joey says looking back on things now Vernon had better soil, as the current site needs lots of amendment for nutrients and weed control. The deciding factor was they were able to secure water rights in Kamloops, as hops require a lot of water to grow.

In April 2014 Hops Canada started importing hops from Europe and was able to sell their inventory within 3 months – demonstrating that there was interest in this product. Planning for the hop yard started around the same time, with the deal with Tk’emlups te Secwepemc being struck in March of 2015. They continue to sell imported hops in addition to their own production. The band owns 66% of Hops Canada and Joey hopes that within a few years they will buy out his share, and take complete control over the business. At this time he estimates this is the biggest business that the Kamloops First Nations band is involved in.

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It just goes on and on

Currently 220 acres are planted with 13 varieties of hops: Chinook, Centennial,  Cascade, Zeus, Galena, Cashmere, Tettnang, MT Hood, Willamette, Crystal, Fuggle, Horizon, Sterling, Triple Perle, UK East Kent Golding, Golding, Newport, Ultra, Sorachi Ace, and one as-yet unnamed hop. The company employs 35 people currently, with a good number being First Nations. Hops Canada has also branched out into growing organically with 5 grown in 20 acres: Zeus, Centennial, Cascade, Chinook, and Galena. If you’re not already aware, obtaining organic certification is quite a complex process as some very specific rules have to be followed, along with site inspections and other conditions to be met. As a large scale producer, Hops Canada feels that they have the capacity to do the extra work, and extra investment to become organic, while for some smaller producers it isn’t necessarily worth the extra effort. Joey tells me that they have interest from Beau’s All Natural Brewing, from Ontario as well as Nelson Brewing for their organic hops.

The biggest problem right now is keeping up with the weeds. They have a mechanical weeder but the land sat empty so long that there are a ton of seeds remaining in the soil which have been activated by the regular watering and fertilizing. They have a herd of goats, which are helpful in the fall and winter, but are not able to be used during the growing season as they developed a taste for the hop shoots and would even preferentially seek them out to eat! The sheep were a bit more dedicated at just going after the weeds, but right now they are all penned up and waiting until harvest to come back out into the fields. The farm is certified Salmon Safe so while they use a small amount of Roundup, the amount of chemicals used is minimized to avoid runoff into the river. This also meets the approval of the First Nations band, as they prefer to avoid any kind of contamination of their land.

The hops are watered using 164 km of drip irrigation and are fertilized once per month starting in June. As it’s located in a very arid area first they loaded the bines with water, which wound up being too much, and some of the plants developed root rot. With the watering schedule scaled back the hops have pretty much completely recovered. They have also experimented a bit with using less support wire on the bines to cut back on the kilometres of wire required, but are leery that when they are in full production the weight of the bines may cause that system to fail.

Cascade is currently the best producer, and I’ve heard from other farmers that it typically performs well in its first years. As the bines are still immature, they haven’t yet hit peak production. Joey’s “pessimistic” estimate is that they will harvest 20,000 lbs this year, but if things go well they will likely be able to achieve a much better yield.

Hops Canada is also running a program in partnership with TRU to develop new, proprietary varieties of hops. They are using quite sophisticated techniques to study the hop genome to identify the specific DNA that account for desired attributes – such as aroma or alpha acid content. Then the genetics of current hops with that DNA are matched in order to breed and develop a genetically novel variety – which can then be trademarked (and often fetches more money on the market). I was pleased to hear that right now they are looking at two varieties with a stone fruit aroma and flavour profile, which is something I’m quite interested in using in my brewing projects lately. The program currently has a research grant from the government and is looking for someone at the PHD level to get involved in this program.

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The Custom-Built Harvester – it’s even bigger in person!

Joey has remarkable insight into this industry, and feels that growing hops in a large-scale operation like this is the only way to be competitive in the International market. Growing the amount that they do, they can afford the big harvester, dryers and pelletizers that are out of reach for the smaller grower. Hops Canada’s harvest equipment was custom made in China and they are able to sort 600 bines an hour. Next year they are planning to double-up on their equipment to get through the harvest even faster. The hops are sorted and dried and then are taken to another site in the industrial area to be pelletized, packed and shipped. Joey is working on getting a new pelletizer developed that can process the hops at a lower temperature. This prevents the oil from coating the pellet, allowing it to break down more easily in cold beer – which would be an advantage for the current dry-hopping trend. Once built it will produce some of the best quality hops available in North America currently.

Right now their market is roughly 50% in Canada, the majority of this going to Alberta, with 25 of 27 of their major craft breweries using Hops Canada product. The other half is being sold internationally to places like India and South Africa. Joey thinks that this allows them to expand beyond the capacity of the local brewing movement, as he feels there is limited growth locally due to the fact that we may be hitting “peak” craft beer and any new breweries are only dividing the existing market share, rather than increasing it. Interestingly the preferences for alpha acids and hop profiles are much different internationally, so some of the varieties they are producing are not influenced by the current West Coast hopping trends. The current corporate takeovers of small craft breweries by larger conglomerates, such as AB-InBev, also affects the hop market. The conglomerates often have hop production in-house and discontinue any existing contracts that were previously in place, which can have a serious financial impact on the hop producer.

Joey’s opinion of the current market is that it will not continue to experience growth as it has since the hop shortage a few years ago. It seems that a lot of growers were inspired by recent shortages which may wind up with market being flooded with hops reduce their price. His business plan is to be profitable by selling hops at $5.00/lb. This is possible due to the large scale that they are working with in Kamloops. This would then allow Hops Canada to be a profitable venture should the current market value decline significantly. For the record, some other operations are currently basing their profit models on selling at $15.00/lb so this is quite a difference.

Growing and selling hops is not Joey’s only business venture at this time. He seems to be perpetually energetic, and is involved in several other business ventures including looking at starting a garlic farm with the idea of replacing the chinese-grown garlic currently available at most grocery stores. He also owns Canadian Brewhouse Supplies, which helps breweries get up and running. Currently they are working with 3 startup breweries, located in Powell River, Edmonton and Nunavut. I have only covered a fraction of the information I learned during the 2 hours I spent at the hop yard, I actually even forgot to take more pictures as I was too busy listening to all that Joey had to say.

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