There’s no doubt that the craft brewing industry in Alberta is hot — and that’s sparking a mini-boom in growing hops.
“We know of 12 producers in Alberta, but that does not account for farmers who haven’t engaged with us,” said Wade Bendfeld, president of the Alberta Hop Producers Association, which was formed in March and recently held its inaugural meeting.
He’s been growing hops for two years on his Spruce Grove-area acreage.
“I’m someone who is interested in craft beer, but I didn’t want to get involved in brewing or anything like that, so I thought I could get involved in the craft beer movement a little by growing hops,” said Bendfeld, a corporate communications professional who has almost 100 plants on a quarter-acre.
That’s actually a sizable chunk of current production in Alberta — Bendfeld estimates there’s only about five acres of hops in the entire province.
While not a big number, it’s a lot more than what you might expect. Most of the hops grown in the world are found in moist, temperate climates and until recently, the prevailing view was that they couldn’t be successfully grown in Alberta.
However, that changed when sisters Catherine Smith and Karin Smith Fargey started Northern Girls Hops at Darwell (west of Edmonton) in 2013. Bendfeld got in touch after hearing a radio interview with them and decided to give it a go himself. He also credits the sisters for laying the foundation for the hops association.
“They called a meeting of a bunch of different people who had expressed interest in growing hops back in 2016,” said Bendfeld. “We started talking about how we could grow together and support each other. The hops industry in Alberta was really non-existent.”
It was at that meeting that the idea for the association was formed.
“One of the things we quickly understood — and one of the central requirements for the association — was to be supportive of each other,” said Bendfeld. “We’re all going to learn different things. It’s really about how do we start our farms, and start an industry by helping each other.”
Hops growers in different parts of the province have different challenges because of their local climate. But one common issue for newbies is figuring out layout for a hop yard and building a proper trellis system, which needs to be six or so metres high.
“There’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be set up for them to actually grow properly,” said Bendfeld.
But it’s not a case of build it and they will come — there’s already huge interest in hops thanks to the popularity of craft beer. These days, it’s often called “the new wine” and aficionados enthuse about flavour ‘notes’ and what food should be paired with this or that brew. That spills over to hops, which add both bitterness and aroma depending on the variety, the amount used, and when they’re added in the brewing process.
“One of the things we’re seeing is that there is huge interest from the public, the provincial government, and most importantly, from craft brewers,” said Bendfeld.
None of the farms in Alberta currently produce enough hops to regularly supply any of the bigger beer makers.
“It would be hard for us to supply any plants today. But next year, there are going to be a lot more plants coming online and a lot more production. It’s growing every year, so it’s good.”
Along with sharing best practices, the association will help connect craft brewers with hops growers in the province.
“The Alberta Hops Producers Association will be able to contribute to that significantly,” said Bendfeld.
The group held a fundraising event last month and is discussing a variety of ideas to generate more interest from the public, brewers, and government.
“There is a lot of recognition that this is viable and this is an exciting time to get in on this.”