PEI farmers discovering Island conditions can be ideal for hops

For centuries, hops have been grown and used as medicinal plants as well as a key component in brewing beer. Despite the multitude of craft breweries opening in our region in recent years, farming hops is only now slowly catching on. Currently there are approximately 27 acres of hops being grown in the Maritimes, Wade Beaton, co-owner/operator of My Father’s Farm in Stratford, PEI,  said.

“The industry is young, with the first dedicated farms less than 10 years old. I planted my first 100 plants in 2012 (1300 per acre). By 2014 I was up to 5700 plants. I started with 14 varieties, but pared down to five by 2015. My planting consists of Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Magnum, and Galena. There aren’t any ‘indigenous’ varieties, but many varieties have been crossbred to create plants more particular to North America. New varieties are being developed all the time to create new flavours and aromas.”

He said the brewery industry in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick use a large percentage of locally grown hops. “I sold to many breweries in both provinces, and had interest as far away as Ontario. Locally, however, there was little support. I suspect with the growing number of breweries on the Island this might create more pressure on local breweries to buy local product.”

Matt Bryenton, owner East Coast Hoppers, says there are definitely options for the brewer and homebrewer in the Maritimes. He and his wife opened their online shop last fall and offer equipment and fresh ingredients like malts, hops, and liquid yeasts for purchase.

“I have been home brewing beer for over 20 years,” he said. “I started with extract kits and about 10 years ago started making beer right from the malts and hops (all grain brewing). There was nowhere on PEI to get those types of ingredients or supplies.”He will soon have more local options. “I do know of a couple of hop farms in NB, one that I’ve been in contact with, and plan to carry their hops but I am still pretty new to the home brew shop scene and didn’t have the connections made in time start off stocking their goods.  I definitely encourage supporting local though and will be looking for pellets from hop farms in Atlantic Canada from this next growing season.”

Bryenton also has a number of his own vines taking root. “I’ve been growing my own hops for personal use for about five years and have eight different varieties in my yard: Cascade, Centennial, East Kent Golding, Saaz, Crystal, Columbus, Magnum, and Fuggle.”

He said hops seem to grow well on the Island although the season can sometimes be a bit cool.

“In general I’ve had some great successes,” he said. “Hops are a super hardy plant as well although there are some varieties that are susceptible to downy and powdery mildew which don’t do as well here . . . I have had some powdery mildew on a couple of plants but if you stay on top of it, it’s not hard to control. With that said, I only have a few plants; it would be much harder to deal with in a large hopyard.”

It would seem that PEI is ideally situated geographically and agriculturally for hop growing.

Don Campbell, owner/brewer of Barnone in Rose Valley, PEI, said the climate is quite good. “They will usually be ready to harvest end of August or September depending on season. They seem to be quite hardy, with rhizomes spreading very aggressively each year.

Spencer Gallant, who is currently doing his M.Sc. on Maritime hops agrees but says there are challenges.

“Hops grow best between the 35th and 55th degree latitude and PEI sits somewhere around the 46th. So, yes, PEI is a good candidate for commercially growing hops, but it does come with its own struggles, much like any other agricultural crop. On PEI we tend to have a humid growing season, which promotes the growth of downy mildew . . . which is specific to hops. In my opinion this is the most detrimental factor in growing hops here.The scariest thing about downy mildew is that it can overcome a yard very quickly, as little as a few days with some wind.”

He said hops are a perennial plant, and typically take three years to reach a peak yield after the rhizome is planted.

He also said soil on PEI is good for hop growing, with some fertilization and subterranean irrigation. “Soil pH is key for hops, levels between 6.0-6.5 is best and can be adjusted . . . Subterranean is key to keep hop foliage dry, to help prevent downy mildew. Last year’s hot and dry summer was perfect for hop growing on PEI, in combination with irrigation.”

“So overall, hops can definitely be grown here, with the help of fertilizing and pesticide application. No one here is growing hops organically . . . yet.”

Iain MacInnes, co-owner of Productions Piroune in Mont-Carmel, PEI, has plans to grow hops.

“My hopyard is on hiatus until the malt house is running,” he said. “I’ll be producing aroma varieties. Hops are fine here. Sandy soil is good. PH around 6.5, UK varieties a little lower I believe and supposedly are helped with bone meal. North American varieties grow well although some people, non-commercial, have had success growing others.”

Bryenton agrees that the soil is ideal. “They need lots of organic material for adding macro and trace nutrients in the soil but prefer well-draining soil rather than dense soil. They are prolific growers and require a lot of water during the vegetative growth phase.”

Beaton said, “It’s only been the last 20 years that new developments in treatment and sustainable farming that have allowed hops to make a home here again. We still have the mildews (downy and powdery), but they are easily managed. Most North American hops are grown in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Dry valleys with a large supply of water are ideal.”

With that being said, Beaton acknowledges the growing conditions on PEI are quite good for hops. “Generally hops prefer a dry climate with lots of water (irrigation). PEI has a consistent ocean breeze which helps mitigate the humidity. Proper field management helps to overcome other issues related to that humidity.”

Only time will tell if hops will become a crop worth their weight in gold, but to many beer aficionados, they already are.


About Rod Weatherbie

Rod Weatherbie is a writer working in the hospitality industry. He spent a number of years in Toronto as a member of the financial press before returning to PEI. Rod has published one piece of short fiction, one book of poetry, and has had work published in Red Shift, the Antigonish Review, Mitre, and the Toronto Quarterly. He has also recently co-produced, co-directed, and acted in a stage production of old television shows.

He also likes writing about food. Go figure.

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