ST. BERNARDIN- Who doesn't love an ice-cold beer on a hot, sunny day? Well those suds need to start somewhere and now you can say that some of them start right here in Eastern Ontario.
Daniel Sabourin, at Nation Hops, began growing hops on his property in St. Bernardin in 2010. He started with one row of vines, 120 plants and seven varieties of hops: Cascade, Hallertauer, Mount Hood, Nugget, Perle, Willamette, Zeus. Now, he has seen his 3.5-acre field grow to four rows and 680 plants and is looking to expand to grow more. Sabourin considers himself a moderate sized operation in comparison to others in Ontario. He says the largest one is only seven acres.
Sabourin remembers how he got involved with the plant. "I had worked on a dairy farm just outside of town since 1994. The family I worked for came to me and said they were considering selling the farm and to be prepared. They said they would keep me right up until the last day but I knew I needed a plan. I looked for agriculture options and found hops. I had heard about them before but they hadn't been grown in the area for decades. I found some information and the Ontario Hop Growers Association. I began emailing with them and before long I had established my roots system."
With his switch to hops, Sabourin still had many thanks for the Gauthier family, who he worked for. They helped him get his operation off the ground by supplying him with the post for his field. After that he strung up his wires and began to grow hops.
Even with his entry into this type of farming, Sabourin acknowledges that there are not many growing hops in the area. "There aren't a lot in the region, maybe nine, and everyone is just starting out," said Sabourin. "It takes about three years for the plants to fully mature and produce so you need to be patient."
When the plants do start growing, Sabourin notes they can spring up quite quickly. "In the right conditions a vines can grow 1.5 feet in a day."
Yet Sabourin is looking to help increase the number of hops producers. This year he accepted a role with the Ontario Hop Growers Association as director. He is looking to help the process of harvesting hops, which by hand can be a long tedious exercise, as he has built a custom harvester and is hoping to build more. "I used plans from the University of Vermont and got the funding to build one. You just cut the top and bottom of the plant and feed it through the machine and it separates the hops from the vines. With the machine attached to a 25hp tractor, I can do 60 vines an hour, without it takes an hour to do two."
Other than the harvester, another project that Sabourin is working on, in conjunction with the Association, is a co-op to release an all Ontario beer with Tribal Hops in Iroquois and Heritage Hill Organics in Barrie. "We are pooling all our hops and this December the project will release an ale and pilsner that will be sold in the LCBO. We even have the original Mill Street brewer on board to craft the beers."
This year, roughly half of Sabourin's hops will go towards the Ontario beer project, but the other half will go to a familiar source.
"Last year, we held a hops fest here in St. Bernardin," Sabourin explains. " The 3 Brewers from Montreal (Les Trois Brasseurs) tried my hops and bought my whole harvest last year and have already bought half this year."
Sabourin has been lucky but he does admit that one of the major challenges is selling the hops. "There are many varieties that are becoming available in Ontario so it really comes down to the brewers' preference."
In the fields the main challenges Sabourin outlines are keeping the fields irrigated, keeping an eye out for insects that may attack his crops, keeping the grass in walkways and under vines low to avoid humidity and making sure the cables that hold the vines up are not too tight.
Sabourin also says that he hasn't sprayed yet but he is not Organic Certified. He does what he can without conventional farming but says he won't lose his crops if it comes down to it like many of the hops farmers in Ontario.
The harvesting process for hops is unique. The harvest season runs from mid august to mid September but when a hop is ready depends on the variety. Now that Sabourin has his harvester, he is ready to expand to a larger operation. He says he has solved a problem that many other growers in the province face. "A lot of growers planted much more than me, but now they can't harvest it. When harvesting hops you need everything to be specific, it really is a science."
While most of the growers are concentrated in southern Ontario, because of the climate, Sabourin is optimistic that the industry will thrive in the future. What he would like to see is the industry run similar to the dairy industry where hops are pooled together in one location with set pricing and a joint effort at marketing.
On tap for Sabourin this summer is to do little festivals when he can, be part of Ottawa's Craft Beer Week and work on the Ontario beer project.
It seems like the popularity of hops are on the grow and that the local variety might be coming soon to a mug near you.