Aroma of local hops growing stronger than ever in Ontario

During the next several months, stories highlighting the significant economic impacts, innovative projects, and leadership of Greenbelt Fund grantees will be appearing in some of the province’s most read agriculture publications, including The Grower, Ontario Farmer, Better Farming, and Country Guide East. We’ll be celebrating the success stories by publishing them here as well.

Nicholas Schaut (right) and Andrew Bartle (left), brew master at Northwinds Brewery, celebrating their collaboration.

Local beer trend bringing back hop yards 

As Ontarians begin to recognize the value in eating and drinking locally, requests for a pint of locally brewed beer are going up.

"The resurgence of craft brewing is like a revolution," says Nicholas Schaut, owner of Bighead Hops, a hop farm located near Meaford, Ontario. "Brewers believe in the local economy and they have been trying to break the system of large commercial control over their craft. By building a product chain that sources local ingredients they are demonstrating a cycle of integrity in their product and building a narrative which has resonated with the community."

To meet this need, Bighead Hops started producing and supplying certified organic hops to more than five local craft breweries. Hops were introduced to Canada in the late 1600s, but eventually insect and mildew caused the market to collapse. Today, modified growing and harvesting methods mean hops grow well in southern Ontario. Grown in an orchard environment, hops require attention, diligence, physical labour and unique, capital intensive end-processing methods.

A team effort
"Brewers turn hops into gold," says Schaut. "Our hops have a distinct aroma due to the varied conditions and soil qualities in Ontario, so it’s our job to highlight that when we’re talking to brewers."

Bighead Hops has secured long-term, multi-year contracts with local breweries, but they didn’t always have the connections to cultivate relationships with brewers, or the equipment to fulfill their supply needs. A $42,000 investment from the Greenbelt Fund helped close this gap.

"Our work is all about making sure Ontario and Greenbelt farmers and processors can do better, that farmers have access they didn’t have before, and processors can access local products," says Kathy Macpherson, Vice President of the Greenbelt Fund.

Funding provided Bighead Hops access to the marketplace, equipment to cultivate and produce dry, wet and pelletized hops, and other support systems necessary in an incredibly labour intensive and capital intensive industry.

"As growers, we were all missing one thing: a processing hub for Ontario hops," explains Schaut. "The industry required an end product that was pelletized, and we required a piece of equipment that could transform our product to meet their needs and grow our farm forward."

The local hop growing community now ships their dried hops to Bighead Hops for pelletizing and packaging, giving growers the ability to focus on other important areas such as expanding their acreage.

Think locally. Drink locally.
As a founding member and past president of the Ontario Hop Growers Association, Nicholas believes that working together with other growers, they can strengthen the entire industry by providing the required ingredient from within Ontario and the Greenbelt.

Each year before harvest, Bighead Hops hosts the Bighead ShinDig to show off their full bines to representatives from local breweries and food vendors. "We like to bring consumers into our environment," says Schaut. "It gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the value chain that exists in craft brewing, the level of integrity and depth of quality in every pint."

Finding an opportunity for hops
Based on current global predictions there will be hops shortages for the foreseeable future due to the sheer volume of breweries that are opening and the shift to locally produced craft beer.

"There is so much more that could be grown," explains Schaut.