In certain parts of the Fraser Valley, particularly around Chilliwack, you can still find patches of wild hops growing in roadside ditches or crawling up a weathered mailbox, remnants of the craft beer boom and pervasive hop farming that flourished in the 1930s. Hops are a key ingredient that endows beer with its distinct aroma and biting flavour. In the mid-1900s Chilliwack was the largest hops producer in all of the British Commonwealth, but the trade of beer making went stagnant for decades when the market was monopolized by a handful of large companies who began outsourcing to maximize profit. The last acre of hops farm was uprooted and replanted with corn and cauliflower in the early-90s. But now a new race is on, a feverish scramble to fill the desperate need for world-class Cascade hops as a wave of local breweries sweeps across the continent.
“It’s a gold-rush,” exclaimed John Lawrence, owner of Chilliwack Hop Farms, a thriving new hops plantation and processing facility situated in Chilliwack’s Sardis neighbourhood.
Lawrence is one of a handful of local hops farmers in B.C. When he decided to plant hops five years ago he envisioned it being a retirement gig, a hobby farm and fun project in an industry that interested him.
“I thought, ‘Oh, 10 acres is all I need, It’s a little retirement project,’ and now we’re in excess of 215 employees,” he said.
Craft breweries in B.C. have grown from 35 in 2007, to 150 this year. This is indicative of a major market shift, and more than just a new trend. This rapid shift is the result of a “beer revolution,” a coup of passionate local brewers wrestling the industry out of the clutches of corporate hegemony.
“There was half a dozen corporate breweries in North America, and it didn’t matter how good of a farmer you were, you weren’t going to sell any more hops than they were going to take, because where else are you going to take them?” Lawrence explained. “They had the farmer under their thumb. The hop price in 1936 was $1.98 a pound, when it closed down here 60 years later, it was $2.98 a pound, that’s how controlled it was.”
As one of the pioneers of the hop farming revival, Lawrence’s experience in selling his hops was the opposite of subdued.
“As soon as I started my farm Molsons came around and said they would buy everything I had. I thought, ‘Well what the hell do they want with my few acres here?’” he said. “All they wanted to do was stop the craft breweries from getting it. They didn’t care; they were throwing our hops into the mix and walking away to keep the market under control. But that got out of hand because there were too many craft breweries wanting to start up.”
In Canada today 20 per cent of the beer market, a $5-billion industry hydrating 10 million Canadians each year, is controlled by microbreweries, according to Agriculture and Agri Food Canada. Microbreweries offer endless potential for innovation as new brewers experiment with varieties and combinations of unique ingredients to offer beer that stands out amongst a bustling new market. Beer drinkers are ecstatic over the options, and the pricing is competitive since breweries craft their beer on-site and serve it to customers at a discount, straight from the vat into one- or two-litre jugs known as “growlers.”
“One of the problems that small breweries had before is that when they went to start-up their business they had to go to one or two major hops suppliers, usually a huge company in the States called Hops Union,” Lawrence explained. “Hops Union demands a contract; the brewery had to sign up to say how much they were going to take, and they were locked into that. They had to buy that and nothing else, but if Hops Union didn’t have it in stock, too bad. They don’t care about microbreweries with their small orders of different varieties. They just want the big contracts.”
This is exactly what Lawrence wanted to change about the industry, and by offering lower quantities of hops, breweries are able to experiment and create a larger array of beers.
“Small breweries will get unique ideas and want to experiment with 20 pounds of this and 10 pounds of that, just to do test runs, and they could never get that from the big guys,” he said. “We will sell one pound of hops. We want to inspire the craft breweries to innovate, because that expands the market … It’s great because these guys are always trying to innovate to get the edge on the competition, so they’re having a ball. And it’s fantastic. It’s great for business and the industry is thriving.”
One of these small breweries, Field House, is a new award winning brewery in the old downtown district of Abbotsford, minutes from the UFV campus. Field House is known for their concoctions of unique brews such as a cold press Radler using cold pressed fruit, foraged herbs combined with a sour wheat beer, or a new collaboration with Modern Times Brewing where both crews went on a summer gallivant across Sumas Mountain foraging wild flora, and they finished by pitching the ingredients into a 7-metre copper “coolship” to ferment, and left it to age six months in a vat with a hundred pounds of local blackberries. Mission Springs Brewing has a Cookies & Cream Ale and Ravens Brewing recently collaborated with Oldhand Cafe in Abbotsford to craft a Coffee IPA. All of this goes without saying that the classic-style lagers and ales from local microbreweries across the country, and particularly in B.C. with our distinctive Cascade hops, are winning awards and gaining global attention.
“We didn’t have the volume to keep up with the demand,” John said excitedly as we gazed across his sprawling crops. “There was a lot of people in the Valley with useable land; they didn’t have the hops dryers, harvesters, or know-how, so I came up with a solution. I offered some of the landowners around here a profit sharing scenario: they provide the land, I provide the crops and equipment and we share the profit 50/50. People jumped on board. We’ll have an excess of 300 acres this year.”
John led me past the largest hops harvester in Canada, letting me know that he has three more ordered to arrive this year, and into his processing plant, a warehouse pungent with green hops; a pine needle and cut grass scent. Two-hundred pound bales of hops standing well over six feet tall lined the floor. An elevated platform lining the side-wall had four large sunken sectors, one-metre deep, used to dry fresh cones of hops. John lead me past his massive cold-storage unit which houses over 200 varieties of hops, and over to his processing area. A large map on the wall was crowded with pins that spanned the globe, indicators of each brewery he supplies.
This is all from the last eight months,” he laughed, pointing to the convoluted mass of tacks stuck over North America. “We’ve run out of space for pins.”
In the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, thousands of families used to migrate to Chilliwack from across the country during the hops harvest in August and September. They would pick hops all day and into the dusk, and they would camp out together overnight in the fields. The hops they picked were in demand from breweries across the continent. It seems like, after decades of stifled enterprise, the craft beer boom and Chilliwack hops harvest is back in full-swing and it’s bringing Canadians together once again.
“We’re adding another building this year,” John said as we walked across the gravel driveway towards my car. “When we put the new building up we are going to add a microbrewery at the end. We’ll be doing everything here. Guests will be able to go on a tour, see the entire process all of the way through and taste the end result. We’ll be the first ones to do that here in the Valley.”
John smiled as we stopped to take one last look at his farm nestled in the mountainous valley.
“It’s exciting, and it’s what the people want, good beer and community. What more can you ask for?”
The Microbreweries situated around the UFV campuses:
Dead Frog Brewery – Aldergrove, B.C., try the Reina De Fuega Mexican Chocolate Porter
Fieldhouse Brewing Co. – Abbotsford, B.C., try the award-winning Sour Wheat Gose
Maple Meadows Brewing Co. – Maple Ridge, B.C., try the New Year Negra Noche Bock
Mission Springs Brewing Co. – Mission, B.C., try the Cookies & Cream Ale
Old Abbey Ales – Abbotsford, B.C., try the Dry Hop Saison
Old Yale Brewing Co. – Chilliwack, B.C., try the award-winning Sasquatch Stout
Ravens Brewing Co. – Abbotsford, B.C., try the Old Hand Café and Bakery Coffee IPA
Ridge Brewing Company – Maple Ridge, B.C., try the Wind And Sea Pale Ale
Trading Post Brewing Co. – Langley, B.C., try the Dark Tart Farmhouse Ale
A few major award-winning breweries in Vancouver:
33 Acres Brewing Co. – Vancouver, B.C.
Brassneck Brewery – Vancouver, B.C.
Four Winds Brewing Co. – Delta, B.C.
Parallel 49 Brewing Co. – East Vancouver, B.C.
Steel and Oak Brewing – New Westminster, B.C.
Strange Fellows Brewing Co. – Vancouver, B.C.