Alisha Ilaender and Shane D. Toews of Fraser Valley Hop Farms are looking forward to their first-ever harvest this fall. The new hops-producing company hopes to help provide local supply options for breweries in B.C. and eventually the rest of Canada. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)

Craft beer hop farm on Seabird territory preparing for first harvest

Founders have plans to become one of Canada’s largest hops suppliers

Nestled on Seabird Island land, under the abiding vigilance of Mount Cheam, sit rows and rows of tiny hop plants.

You have to kneel down and peer into the moist soil to find the little clusters of buds, poking up through the ground, beginning to wake up as warmer air hits the valley. By mid-April long cedar poles and aircraft wires will support thousands of Cascade and Centennial variety hops.

The hops were planted by Fraser Valley Hop Farms Inc., a new hop production company founded in late 2016 by Shane D. Toews and Alex Blackwell, who took on a 25-year lease for 52 hectares of Seabird Island land. The entrepreneurs and their team spent most of 2017 setting up infrastructure on six hectares, and now, with the help of B.C. hops-producing legend Rick Knight, are preparing for their first harvesting year.

“It’s phenomenally exciting,” said Toews. “The amount of attention we’ve had from local craft breweries has been phenomenal. It’s been very well [received.]”

With 22,000 baby hop plants of various strains purchased from an Abbotsford wholesale hops provider, the farm is expecting to produce a full yield this fall. Once the baby plants are about one-foot tall, they’ll be planted and begin to climb vertically on strings hanging from wires supported by 20-foot treated pine and cedar poles stationed across the parcel of prepared land.

With the potential to grow up to six metres annually, hop plant growing requires serious infrastructure – about 24 end poles per hectare. But the set up is worth it for the yield – the farm anticipates about 3,750 dried hops per hectare.

Planting different hop varieties means the land can produce different beer products. From ‘Triple Pearl’ or ‘Sterling’ to ‘Cashmere’ or ‘Chinook,’ the high-quality plant varieties the company plans to produce will create beers with varying aromas, weights, scents and flavours.

The new hop farm is already signed up to supply hops to a number of B.C. brewers including 33 Acres, Parallel 49, Old Yale Brewing, Dead Frog, Phillips, Four Winds and more.

And the growers have big plans for the future of their (currently) tiny plants. The agreement with Seabird Island includes the option to expand the lease in the same field, using the same irrigation system. They hope to expand the amount of hops-producing hectares over the coming years.

“One of our goals here is to be the largest hops producer of high-quality hops for the craft beer industry,” said Toews. “Ideally we’d like to get up to 500 acres and be the biggest hop supplier in Canada. That would be our long-term vision for five or six years.”

Eventually, the hop producers hope to have their own processing facility, greenhouse and nursery to supplement the ample, fertile land.

An exploding industry

Toews said the company is poised for success thanks to the growing popularity of craft beer and demand for quality hops. With nearly 150 breweries and a 44 per cent increase in microbrewery beer production between 2013 and 2016, B.C. has gained a reputation as the craft beer capital of Canada.

But provincial hops supply hasn’t boomed at the same rate.

In the mid-20th century the Fraser Valley was a huge player in the hop-farming industry, with Agassiz, Chilliwack and Sardis known to be some of the largest hop-producing regions in Canada. But in the late 90s local producers were hit hard by an industry shift to multinational brewing companies offering lower cost products.

Since then, a lot of B.C. brewers have been getting hops from Washington’s Yakima Valley, but even that supply is volatile.

Toews said droughts in the western U.S have contributed to an international hops shortage for the craft beer industry. “A lot of breweries are having to change their recipes cause they can’t get consistent types of hops,” he said. People don’t necessarily want to buy hops outside Canada if they can help it. There’s kind of a shift for a local movement here for the hop farms.”

Communications officer Alisha Ilaender said helping localize hop supply is a huge part of the new company’s mission.

“Right now a lot of hops comes from the States…we want to supply local breweries with local hops,” she said.

A 2014 survey by Hop Yard Collective of B.C. showed a majority of craft beer producers interested in switching to B.C.-grown hops if they could be guaranteed consistent quality and supply.

Fraser Valley Hop Farms Inc. is ready for the task, according to Toews. With a sophisticated irrigation and fertilizer system, smart farm technology mixed with old school farming sensibilities and the gumption to succeed, the Fraser Valley farmers are poised for a bright future in a burgeoning industry.

Hops United

A separate, but related initiative for Ilaender and Toews is Hops Canada United, a program that uses micro-funding to bring the brewery-loving community together to help end the hops shortage.

People can purchase a hops plants for $10/plant and once it’s planted, grown, harvested and sold to breweries, the owners are paid back the $10, plus an additional $2 from the profits.

Hops United also donates 25 cents on every plant to charity.

It offers people who want to get involved in the growing industry the opportunity to do so, on the scale of their choosing, said Toews. “It allows everybody to be involved. Everybody has $10.”

For now, purchased hops will be planted on Fraser Valley Hop Farms Inc. land.

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