Few inventions have withstood the test of time as well as beer. Sipped by ancient pharaohs and Sumerian rulers over 6,000 years ago, the concoction has survived the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution and Prohibition. Many things go into beer’s complex creation, including malt, water and yeast, but it is arguably hops – the green, cone-shaped offspring of the female hop plant, containing 200 active essential oils – that are most vital. Hops balance the sweetness of the malt while adding clarity and enhancing preservation. Since 2007, however, accessing that green gold of ales has become increasingly difficult, especially for B.C.’s microbreweries, the 21 operations scattered across the province that produce less than 1.8 million litres annually. Unpredictable global weather patterns, declining acreage in major hops-producing regions and a worldwide agricultural shift toward more profitable biodiesel crops have made hops scarce and expensive. Adding to the problem has been beer’s increasing popularity: between 1996 and 2006, as worldwide acreage and total hops production dropped 36 per cent, beer production rose 58 per cent. Because many of the world’s large beverage conglomerates such as SabMiller PLC and InBev STT now secure their hops through forward contracting – negotiating a set price regardless of market fluctuations – small microbreweries have been left to duke it out over the scraps, trading leftovers between themselves and experimenting with untried hops in hopes of finding consistent taste patterns to match established products. To keep up with rising ingredient costs, B.C.’s brewers have hiked beer prices an average of seven per cent since November 2007, with another jump of similar proportions imminent.
B.C. was a commercial hops-producing province throughout most of the 20th century, but in the late ’90s it bowed to rapidly expanding competition in Washington’s Yakima Valley, which now grows 24 per cent of the world’s hops supply. Now, a decade later, hops farming is back in B.C. – in a modest but growing way. Heartened by strong market prices, and encouraged by microbrewery owners across the province looking to preserve their supply of hops, B.C. farmers are again sinking the valuable vines into their soil.
“There was this kind of rumbling in the underground that something was wrong with hops and nobody was really forthcoming as to what it was, and then all of a sudden the prices shot through the roof,” says 34-year-old Matt Phillips of Victoria’s Phillips Brewing Co. “And it’s not just price, it’s availability. For a company like ours that prides itself in a hoppy beer, we’re kind of concerned as supplies dry up that we can get the quantities we’re looking for.”
Stepping over buckets of orange pumpkin purée and a maze of rubber hoses in his gleaming new 12,000-square-foot brewery on Government Street in Victoria, Phillips explains the basics of brewing. The Nova Scotia native landed on B.C. soil over a decade ago, working his way up the lager ladder before establishing his eponymous microbrewery in 2001. Today Phillips sells to some 200 restaurants, pubs, cold beer and wine outlets, and liquor stores around the province, and is working with local farmer Alec Johnston, who planted half an acre of Phillips’s favourite hops to ensure accessibility in upcoming years.
Phillips had considered buying land to grow his own hops, but the idea was too costly and complicated, so instead he got involved with an informal B.C. movement to kick-start hops production around the province. In the driver’s seat was Rebecca Kneen, a Sorrento-based brewer and hops farmer who had been active in re-establishing B.C. as a hops-producing province, beginning in 2000.
“When any industry is centralized to that degree, you know that it’s rather wobbly,” explains Kneen over the phone between brewing batches of ale in her organic microbrewery, Crannóg Ales. “You can only stand on one foot for so long before you fall over, and essentially the hops industry in North America was built entirely around the Yakima Valley and a few other spots in Oregon. It’s a highly centralized industry in the U.S., with no local production anywhere else in North America. That seemed to me to be a recipe for disaster.”
Helping to rebuild B.C.’s hops wasn’t a stretch for Kneen, whose astute understanding of agriculture comes from a lifetime of farming. Her idea is straightforward: self-sufficiency and diversification are necessary to ease B.C. growers’ and brewers’ dependency on the external hops market. Since B.C. used to have nine hops-producing regions – the Saanich Peninsula, Squamish, Chilliwack, Mission, Lillooet, Kamloops, Vernon, Creston and Kelowna – she knew the plant would take well to most microclimates in the southern regions of the province. Between 1920 and 1950, when Europe’s hops industry was still recovering from the devastations of war, Chilliwack became the single largest hops-growing area in the Commonwealth, with close to 800 hectares of farmland dedicated to the crop. By 1997 its remaining fields had shrunk to 120 hectares. Often locked into these forward-contracting agreements, B.C. farmers found themselves selling hops for as little as $1.50 per pound – less than the cost of production – so they stopped growing it. “There were other crops coming along that were way more lucrative, pretty much everything except for wheat, which is still at 1937 prices,” says Kneen. “There was pressure from biodiesel, so people were taking land out of hops production and putting it into biodiesel crops.”