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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Steve Tomlinson is the man behind A Guy With A Shovel Hop Yard (AGWASHY for short). Located in Penticton’s West Bench neighbourhood which is known for its orchards and more recently, vineyards, Steve’s hop yard takes up the back third of his 1 acre property,and with just over 300 plants it is a fairly solid backyard operation.
He came up with the idea a few years ago when he and his wife, Rita, were looking to use their space for growing a cash crop. Steve says he’s not entirely sure what drew him towards growing hops, he started reading about it and grew a test row before taking the plunge. Some of his hops are now 5 years old, making him to my knowledge one of the first people in the area to look at growing hops beyond personal use.
Hop Flowers, also known as Burrs
His hops are sourced from Left Field Farm in Sorrento, the hop yard associated with Crannóg brewing. Most of the hops from there are certified organic, which he was thinking of doing, however, once he took a look at the specifications required for certification, he quickly realized that it would be too much work, too much money and also likely result in a lower harvest.
This being said, there isn’t too much chemical intervention happening in his yard either. He hasn’t sprayed so far this year, he has used a granular fertilizer but otherwise the hops are doing their own thing. For pests he’s noticed this year that the aphids aren’t too bad, and the lady bugs seem to be taking care of any that are around. Grass and weeds grow between his rows, but a simple mow takes care of most of it, and the hops are established enough that they have overtaken any weeds growing in the rows.
Looking through a row at AGAWASHY towards one of the most valuable tools – the Orchard Ladder
Steve’s approach to setting up his hop yard is very DIY. He was able to source cedar poles for a couple hundred hundred dollars for the lot, and brought them down from Enderby on a friend’s flat deck ATV trailer. He brought in a machine for a day to augure and erect the poles, then he set up the trellis himself. Conventional trellises sit at about 20’ high, but he chose to set his at 15’ as it was as tall as he felt comfortable reaching up to from his orchard ladder!
The hop yard blends nicely into the rest of the Tomlinsons gardens, with berry bushes, vegetable beds and grape vines rounding out the other crops. While they will both spend some time over the summer maintaining their other gardens, after the twine is strung and the bines are trained there isn’t a lot of work to do with the hops until harvest time.
Some early cones were discovered ripening on the Cascade Bines
In years past harvest time meant having family and friends come over to hand pick the vines, which is quite a bit of work. Last year he built a harvesting machine with a trailer axle with picking arms which was described by an onlooker as “bashing the cones off the bines” and then used a treadmill as a sorting machine. It worked, but it wasn’t ideal, so he’s still working on a harvesting option for this upcoming season. The dryer is like a modified dehydrator, also a DIY project. One dry the hops are vacuum sealed, which helps compress them, and then frozen.
I asked Steve if he would recommend becoming a backyard hop farmer to someone else having learned via trial and error over the past few years. He felt that for a homebrewer perhaps having 6 different varieties using a maypole style trellis wouldn’t take up too much space and with at least 1lb per plant would provide ample hops for the brewing season. For a commercial endeavor he felt that marketing was a challenge. He has had interest in the past from some local breweries, but when it came time to sell the harvest people who had been keen earlier were not returning his calls.
Part of the issue is when Steve first set up the hop yard he figured people would appreciate a variety of choices, so he planted Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Fuggle, Nugget, Newport, Galena, Willamette, Mount Hood, Golding and Zeus. With most breweries requiring an alpha acid test at $60.00 per variety, it would have killed his profit to test all 10 varieties. He took aim instead at the home brewing market, as they are usually not quite as discerning as the commercial breweries. This hasn’t been quite as successful as he had hoped, although I have brewed using his hops, and found that they were quite good, it was just a bit of guesswork adjusting my recipe to accommodate whole hops.
To gain more interest in sales, he removed all of his varieties this year aside from the Cascade, Chinook and Centennial. This way he can do the alpha acid testing without wiping out his profit margin. He is hoping he can find a local brewer to take them this year, otherwise he will again be looking at the home brewing market. He did keep one of each of the original varieties, which will wind up in the home brewing projects of Steve and his friends. As far as the hops that he took out, they were able to find homes for both at Hops Canada and then with another local grower.
Steve actually planted his hopyard before he got into home brewing, which he started as a way to use up some of the hops and experiment with the different varieties. Now using the very cool Grainfather system he is able to keep his kegerator running at full capacity, using all of his own hops. I quite enjoyed sampling the pale bitter, dark bitter and dark rye IPA he had on tap, and was impressed at the collection of hops he has in his freezer. He let me know he needs to make space for this year’s harvest, so if I know of any interested homebrewers to spread the word!
A look at the trellis system – the bines are still developing this year due to the replanting, and will be much more developed over the next 2 growing seasons.
Steve has also started the BC Hop Growers group on Facebook as a way of connecting other small scale hop growers in the region with each other and to share advice and information on hop growing techniques. He’s learned quite a bit since he started 5 years ago, and is very happy to share this information with other aspiring hop farmers!