The International Herb Association has named hops as the herb of 2018

Without hops modern-day beer would be a very different drink. For even the most mild lagers available, brewers still use hops in the recipe.

But with the craft brew market still growing and going strong there is a lot more interest in beers that have stronger flavours and some that really pack a punch.

Of the four ingredients needed to brew what we call beer (water, malt, yeast, and hops) hops are the only optional ingredient; hops add bitterness, aroma, and flavour, but aren’t necessary chemically to create a fermented beverage. Add hops and you have modern-day beer. Before the use of hops, beer makers would use a mixture of bittering herbs of different varieties often called gruit.

Beer can be very divisive along taste lines. Some drinkers love big hoppy bombs and others prefer more malt forward brews. But what does it mean when someone says they don’t like hoppy beer?

Before we get to that, just know that hops can be added to beer at different stages of the brewing process and different hops can be used for different purposes. Hops are added early in the boil to provide bittering and later in the boil to add aroma and flavour.

Most of the time when someone complains a beer is too hoppy, what they are talking about is the bitterness. Most craft breweries list the bitterness of a beer alongside the alcohol content. Bitterness is measured in IBUs or International Bittering Units which quantifies the amount of iso-alpha acids in a beer.

However, the IBU can be misleading. If the beer uses darker or roasted malts the resulting drink, while rating high in IBUs, won’t be perceived by the drinker as particularly bitter.

And you can also have a very hoppy beer that isn’t particularly bitter. A good local example would be PEI Brewing Company’s Vic Park which is hopped with Citra hops. It has bitterness to be sure but also has a juicy hop flavour and aroma. This is a single hop beer where the same hop is used for bitterness, aroma, and flavour.

On Prince Edward Island we have a number of craft breweries and lots of homebrewers, and there are some options for local ingredients. The water is local of course, as is some of the malt used on PEI, but local hops haven’t taken off–just yet.

Spencer Gallant, a graduate student with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, as well as Innovation Brewer at PEI Brewing Company (PEIBC), said he doesn’t think anyone on PEI is fully investing into growing hops right now.

“I have bought small amounts from a colleague (Peter Webb) who grows some on their family farm in O’Leary. Us at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada have a two-acre experimental farm in Harrington. The majority of those hops are used for scientific experiments and testing.”

He said at PEIBC the only local hops used there were the ones he got from Peter Webb to make a small batch potato beer called Christmas in O’Leary. Most of the hops used at PEIBC come from the Pacific Northwest-Oregon and Washington.

“However, the past few years we have been getting hops from Southan Farms in Florenceville, NB. They have supplied us with primarily Cascade and Centennial varietals that we use in our West Coast style IPA-1772. However, I tend to find that those varieties when grown on the east coast bring a more grassy and dank character than those varieties when they are grown on the west coast.”

So “terroir” plays a large role on the development of hop aroma and flavour. “Soil, water, nutrients, day length, and heat can change the way hops turn out; i.e., Cascade grown in Oregon vs PEI will likely be a very different hop.”

Don Campbell, owner/brewer at Barnone in Rose Valley has been growing hops for a while, but generally just enough for occasional brews. Barnone is growing Cascade, Willamette, Nugget, and Mount Hood varietals.

Campbell is using the whole flower (cone) rather than the pelletized versions. “We have no means to pelletize, so for our hops we either do ‘wet hop’ brews which means fresh straight into kettle from plant cones. We also have a dryer geared up in one of our barns in which we dry them and shrink package. Still in cone form, not pellet.”

Since he’s using small amounts at his own brewery, the advantages of hop pellet are moot. To pelletize hops, the whole hop cones are ground and pressed. Pellets are easier to store and have a longer shelf life among other benefits.

But Campbell has used other hops local to the Maritimes.

“I have used some of Wade Beaton’s [My Father’s Farm] Cascade hops, dried and pellets. Also Moose Mountain Hops from NB; Cascade and Centennial dried and pelletized.”

Chris Long, head brewer at the PEI Brewing Company said there are several hop growers in the Maritimes that can provide many varieties both whole cone and pelletized hops.

“We’re restricted to pelletized hops, as are most brewers, thanks to brewhouse design,” he said. “Nick Southan was one of the first regional growers to get a pelletizer and start packaging his hops in a way that most brewers can utilize.”

The biggest issue with hops is the lack of processing capacity close to PEI. Wade Beaton, co-owner and operator of My Father’s Farm in Stratford, PEI said, “Hops are dried down to 8% moisture which basically means they are feathers that don’t compact very well. A 100 pound bale (farmers bale) fills the back of a pickup truck. Transporting those hops to a processor [in Fredericton] was very expensive.”

The interest in local seems to be growing, PEI certainly has a large number of very knowledgeable brewers and growers which bodes well for the industry. But maybe it will be the homebrewer or smaller craft producer that gets the ball rolling. Consumers love and seek out local products. Beer drinkers are no different.


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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