There is no way to write about Crannóg Ales without including Left Field Farms, as they are totally entwined, with the products of each endeavor supporting the other. It’s fitting that Brian MacIsaac and Rebecca Kneen – the Brewer and the Farmer – are partners in life as well as business. On arrival we met with Greg Darling – the so called “left-hand man” of the brewery – for a scheduled tour (call ahead of time to get a spot). Several other people joined us for the tour, and over the course of the two hours I spent there a steady stream of traffic came down the rural road seeking some of the best beer BC has to offer.
Right away I learned that I’ve been pronouncing the Crannóg wrong all this time – the proper way is with the ‘o’ pronounced like ‘oak’ or ogre. As well I’ve long wondered what the name means and why their logo is a little hut on stilts. A Crannóg is a traditional Irish/Scottish dwelling, usually built over water or in an area that was unusable for agriculture. Greg explained to us that this was a good symbol for the sustainable development and land stewardship that guides their work.
The tour took us around the 10-acre certified organic farm, where we viewed the 2 hop yards. As well there are several fruit trees, which also make seasonal contributions to the brewery – in a few weeks a cherry ale will be available. As the first certified organic microbrewery, and one of only two on-farm microbreweries in Canada, sustainability is one of their primary driving principles. The farm is also certified Salmon Safe as they use compost and crop rotations to increase the nutrients in their soil, instead of fertilizer which can make its way into the local watershed with harmful results.
I was impressed to learn that their operation is low emission and zero waste – the spent grain is used to feed the livestock and forms the majority of their compost pile. The wastewater is used to irrigate the hops and other crops on the farm. The pigs help clear land and provide a source of fertilizer, as well as food and income in the fall when they are butchered. The sheep and chickens are also helpful in fertilizing, as well as keeping weeds and pests down in the hop yard, while providing eggs and wool. The sheep in particular are quite useful in keeping down the many weeds, in addition by being allowed in the yard once the bines are established they eat the leaves that they can reach thus providing airflow to the base of the plants and reducing the risk of disease. The bees also make their contribution, maintained by a bee-keeping co-op they help pollinate the crops and their honey finds its way back into the beer. Even excess wort is fed to the pigs, who seem to prefer it once wild yeast has converted it into a mild beer.
In the brewery they use water drawn from an on-site well which is spring-fed. This water gives the beer a unique profile and doesn’t need any of the chemical adjustments that some users of municipal water supplies require. The malt comes from Gambrinus, which is located a short distance away in Armstrong. They recycle water as much as possible within the brewery, with an innovative pipe and tank system for recirculating hot water. PBW and organic peroxide are used for cleaning and sanitation, which break down completely into the water supply.
The final stop of the tour was at The Bloody Stump – the tiny tasting room reminiscent of an Irish neighbourhood pub. Cool, and cozy as our group had now grown to over 10 people we gathered around the little bar and sampled the freshest Crannóg Ales available. The tasting menu was the Red Branch Irish Ale, Partition Bitter, Gael’s Blood Potato Ale, and the infamous Backhand of God Stout. With the tour finished we had the opportunity to buy pre-filled growlers of Backhand and Red Branch. Greg explained that pouring growlers on demand took too long and this way they could also optimize the CO2 levels to keep them fresher longer. The growlers are sold for $20.00, with a $5.00 deposit on returns. With the long line-up just to pay for my 2 alloted growlers I can see why they switched to this system. Once the beer sells out for the day, it’s gone, and the brewery only does fills from Thursday to Saturday.
Other than growler fills directly at the farm, it’s only available at a select few restaurants and bars that are limited by driving distance. The brewery operates on a closed-growth model, where they production is limited by the footprint the farm can sustain. The lucky establishments that serve Crannóg ales are chosen by the brewery due to a shared ethical approach and use of local ingredients. Kegs and party pigs are available for private purchase direct from the brewery and a few private liquor stores also carry the party pigs.
After the tour I was able to sit down the owners, Rebecca and Brian, to learn more about their history. They purchased a 10 acre plot of land outside of Sorrento with a brewery and sustainable farm in mind in the very late 90’s after several years of searching. They had been home brewers for several years prior to this, and through their connection with Farm Folk City Folk they were in touch with people in the food and beverage business in the lower mainland. Some of these chefs fell in love with their beer, and strongly encouraged them to start a professional brewery so their beer could be enjoyed by a larger audience.
Crannóg Ales and Left Field Farm opened in 2000, on what Brian and Rebecca called the “leading edge of the second wave of craft breweries” joined by ½ dozen or so other breweries including Spinnakers, Sailor Hagars, R+B and Storm. Using the equipment from the closure of the historic Horseshoe Bay Brewing, the brewery hasn’t grown much since it opened, occupying a small rustic building on the heart of the farm.
Sourcing good quality organic hops proved to be quite difficult, as what was available often had to travel a large distance, thereby negating the sustainability of using organic. At first Brian was having to brew with lager varieties, as that was what was available, and so they had to get rather creative with the recipes to find what worked. In order to facilitate their own demand for hops in they started planting hops on-site in 2001, and expanded with a second yard in 2008.
At the time there was little information available on small-scale hop growing, even though hop growing had historically taken place in BC there were no examples in the area to learn from. Rebecca scoured whatever information she could find to learn more about growing techniques. Some of the sources of information dated back to the turn of the 20th century, when organic methods were the only methods used to farm. They took trips to other hop farms, and found that the farmers were not necessarily open to sharing their techniques, so the couple sometimes had to resort to covertly sketching what they had seen in order to study it back home.
Through trial and error, they built their knowledge of organic growing methods to the point where Rebecca was able to publish the Small Scale Organic Hops Production Manual in 2004, which is available free in electronic form here (link). Currently they grow 17 varieties, with the majority being Fuggles and Golding, along with Nugget, Magnum, Cascade, Challenger, Mount Hood, Willamette, Chinook (which they are in the process of expanding). They also grow small amounts of a few varieties for more experimental use, such as Zeus, Galena, Northern Brewer, Brewer’s Gold and Sterling. They sell rhizomes each spring, with hundreds of people in BC now growing the children and grandchildren of their hops, myself included.
Perhaps most interesting is the Sockeye Hop, which they found growing wild on their property a year after they began growing. At first Rebecca said they didn’t pay it too much attention, but when they used it in brewing they found it to have a very unique, spicy flavour profile. With alpha acids averaging 7-8, it is mid-range in bitterness with plentiful oils and intense colour and flavour. It doesn’t store very well, so they use it once per year in their special release, the Spawning Sockeye Ale, which commemorates the annual Sockeye run. They did not patent the hop, but they control the sale of rhizomes to organic farms where they know the wild pedigree of the plant will be respected.
Each year at harvest time they have a crew of 8-10 people handpick the cones over a period of two weeks. Rebecca took me up into the oast-house to see how they dry and pack the hops. The idea for the dry is adapted from a ostrich egg incubator, and basically resembles a giant dehydrator. Inside of a big wooden box there is a heating element and a fan at the top, then several large drying trays built from wood and hardware cloth. The element heats up to about 38-40 C, and the fan ensures air circulation with vents for the moisture to escape. The whole process takes about 12 hours. The control box for the dryer was the biggest investment,and the only piece of equipment they weren’t able to build themselves.
Once dry the hops go into a press, again custom built to their specifications. Rebecca said due to her agricultural background she wanted this piece of equipment to be manual, in order to keep it simple (and easy to maintain). The hops are placed into a bag, and for lack of a better term, squished into blocks. The pressure is left on for 10-15 minutes in order for the hops to solidify into the shape, resulting in a 3-4 kg compressed bag. At the end of the season, the hop crumbs that sift out of the dehydrator are collected and used in a special cask at the brewery – ensuring low waste as well as being a fun way to literally celebrate the completion of the harvest.
Brian told me the brewery only uses whole hops. While all the hops they grow are used in their brewery, they do occasionally have to source some hops from other organic sources. He said they prefer whole hops because it’s less work, but also finds the flavour of whole hops superior – like comparing whole food with processed food. With a pelletizer there is a chance of degrading the oils, as there is some heat produced in the process. Rebecca also told me about observing the wasted hops from the pelletizer in one of the large-scale productions they viewed – enough for their whole brewery to use in a year. Due to difficulty cleaning the machine, it’s also likely that different varieties can experience cross contamination. Brian says the perceived amount of work is about the same, whole hops can be removed from wort using a hop back, and it requires less filtration than a pelletized wort would to remove the hop particles.
I asked them about what they thought of the growing interest in hops as a cash crop, and whether this was a sustainable industry, or at risk for oversaturation and a crash. They recognize that brewers want high quality hops, and if they can obtain those ingredients locally, they will likely use them. However, Rebecca said people need more education about how to grow hops, and would like to see an organization in place to maintain quality standards. Some of the people who get into growing hops don’t recognize that all hops are not created equal – for example the first 3 years of harvest should not be sold commercially as the quality is poor. If a brewer buys poor quality hops from a local grower, they may assume that all locally produced hops are of the same quality, and quit using them. Left Field is part of a 5 study being done by UBC and TRU investigating the terroir of hops on 3 organic hop farms in different bioregions to understand how flavour may be affected by factors such as soil, climate, and food web. This concept is well-known to the grape industry, but the factors that influence hop development are relatively unknown.
They do feel that oversaturation is possible and there is a certain level of attrition within the hop farming industry. It is quite expensive to get the initial infrastructure set up and putting off earning any meaningful income for at least 3 years is difficult to swallow.Brian and Rebecca spoke to the high rate of failure within the industry – for both craft breweries as well as hop growers, often resulting from a lack of education, awareness of the marketplace, and low quality product. However, they both feel that the growth of craft beer will continue, especially as many breweries continue to use imported versus local hops. Rebecca emphasized a key factor for success being the development of relationships with local breweries. If a high quality product is available locally, breweries will want to use it.
I asked Rebecca if she had any final words about the hop farming industry. She feels that working together is the most important thing. The collegial approach common to the craft beer industry can also benefit it’s agricultural counterpart. “The only way to make it work is cooperatively, and to focus on quality”. If BC hop farmers can work together to maintain a standard of quality with their product, there is an opportunity for a strong industry to develop. She points to the Harvesters Of Organic Hops coop in Liliooet as being an example of this concept – several farms share the same processing facility and market their product together. It is easy to see how farmers working together, rather than competitively in isolation, can result in a much higher rate of success overall.