An oldie but a goodie, this post is from August of last year. We just chatted with Laurie to see how the harvest is going, check out the updates at the end.
Hops farmers around Ontario are busy picking, drying and packaging this year’s crop of the green bine (yes bine, not vine!) and those bittering cones will mostly end up in Ontario craft beers.
Clear Valley Hops is a 74-acre farm at the base of the Blue Mountains, just outside of Collingwood, Ontario. Started by Laurie Thatcher-Craig, and her husband, John, five years ago, they claim their hops have a unique mountain-climate terroir—and breweries are certainly eager to get their hands on them. They’ve been snapped up by everyone from Muskoka to Dominion, Lake of Bays, Wellington, MacLean’s Ales, Amsterdam and Boxing Rock. Clear Valley Hops is part of a resurgence of the hop crop in Ontario. Dormant since the 1950s, both a worldwide shortage and the growing locavore movement have driven demand for hops grown closer to home. I talked to Laurie about the farm, and the challenges of growing hops.
Tell me a bit about Clear Valley Farms
We currently have 13 acres planted of hops, with over 18 varieties, fed by the waters of the Pretty River. The terroir of Georgian Bay comes through in the unique flavours of our hops, lemon vanilla in our Kent Golding, orange and fruit in our Willamette, and alpha acids that are double in some aroma varieties. This is what makes truly Canadian beer!
Lemon-vanilla Kent Goldings? Cool! What makes your climate so unique?
Terroir and way we grow and harvest our hops follows research released two years ago from Oregon State University. Two researchers were hired to find the “super hop,” and in order to do this they had to understand hops and did all kinds of research. What they found out was the majority of hops are not being grown and harvested properly, a whole series of things not being done to capture essential oil properly. From a grower’s perspective we followed their research to capture as much essential oils as possible in our crop.
How did you get started as a hop farmer?
My parents and grandparents are Sunkist orange growers, so I came from a farming family, but my husband is tech person. Hops are not like any other crop out there, you have to have deep pockets and patience and really have to spend so much time with, understand and make sure the environment is what you need to survive and thrive. This is where hops have same characteristics as grapes do, if you’ve got good terroir and a grower who understands soil.
We’ve had some challenges, we bought the farm in 2011 and the 2012 hops we planted went in right in the midst of a severe drought and heatwave, so we had to replant 60% of our crop in 2013.
I keep hearing that Ontario is too wet and cold for growing hops, compared to warmer, drier regions like the Yakima Valley in Washington State.
Despite what Americans will tell you out west—hops don’t like hot weather. The climate in the Yakima Valley has temperatures that are 20 degrees above normal now for aroma hops.
The temperatures in the Yakima are a big problem right now. Especially with what happened this past summer with heat, fire and drought. Despite what Americans will tell you “aroma” hops don’t like high heat. On our farm we have a unique micro climate at the base of the Blue Mountains. Very dry, moderately warm weather that aroma hops love.. We do not have the problems that other hop growers are reporting in Ontario, due to our micro climate.
Bottom line is that it’s time consuming and expensive to grow aroma hops—and it’s not something where you stand there with thermometers—you gotta touch em, smell ‘em, know ‘em and feel ‘em. I’ve got 18 varieties and we’ve learned.
UPDATE: How’s the 2016 hop harvest?
This year there was an incredible growing challenge due to the bizarre weather patterns. In May, it was the coldest ever recorded up here. We had ice, freezing rain, and back-to-back frosts. This came on the heels of a very mild and pleasant April that saw the plants emerge from dormancy with great vigor, only to be slammed
Although our irrigation kept up, the heat was hard on the noble aroma hops, so yields were down from the ones we have harvested thus far. John was up at 5am every morning, and stayed in the field turning irrigation valves on and off all day until 11pm most nights. One of our brand new generators broke trying to keep up. We are very lucky that our well did not go dry. There were a number of wells in the area that did go dry.
UPDATE: Any new customers in 2016?
We are very lucky to have some outstanding breweries who buy from us. Wellington has had great success with Kickin Back. We have more wet ales from our farm coming on line this year. Collective Arts will be doing a wet ale with Chinook and Perle. Sawdust again will be doing a wet ale, Wellington will also being doing a wet ale with Wild turkey and Amsterdam is now in their 4th season with Autumn hop using Cascade.
Bandit Brewing in TO is new for us and are having great success with Wild Turkey in an IPA.
We have a couple new breweries from Nova Scotia this year, as well as Boxing Rock in Nova Scotia who has been with us for a few years now, has just expanded due to the success of using our hops.