You’ll catch a fragrant whiff of potpourri if you stroll through Sandra Gowan’s hop yard during harvest.
This is her sixth year growing the aromatic beer-making ingredient on her Rosser-area acreage, and in late August, their aroma hangs in the air.
“When the hops are getting ready to be harvested, and you walk up and down the rows you can smell the aroma of each variety. Some are piney, some are citrusy, some are spicy,” says Gowan.
And if they smell that good fresh, wait ’til they’re tumbling around in the dryer.
Now retired from her job at the Canadian Grains Commission, the avid gardener launched Prairie Gem Hops in 2009 after her husband, Paul Ebbinghaus, pointed out an article he’d read on a continent-wide hops shortage. Poor crops had followed a major fire that destroyed a warehouse of hops in the North American hops-growing region of Washington, Oregon.
“You should grow those,” he urged her.
Why not? she thought. After all, she had earned a Prairie Horticultural Certificate (PHC), specializing in greenhouse and nursery crop production. She was running a custom plant production business at the time.
“It looked like a really neat-looking plant,” she said. “And I like to push the boundaries and try growing plants that don’t normally grow here.”
Local brewers, MAFRD staff, and other Canadian hops growers she consulted advised her about varieties in highest demand among home brewers, and hardiest for Canadian climates.
In the spring of 2009, she planted 15 plants including three mid- to late-season varieties — Cascade, Fuggle and Northern Brewer.
They grew by leaps and bounds, quickly outgrowing the trellis they’d built. By fall, she was not only convinced hops did fine in Manitoba, but even had buyers for that first small harvest.
“It wasn’t much, maybe a pound in total,” she says, but home brewers with a group calling themselves the Winnipeg Brew Bombers were happy to buy all of it.
The following year she tried more plants and more varieties. Today she has a quarter of an acre under 225 plants including 18 different varieties.
It’s a business that keeps her, well, hopping. About two-thirds of her revenues now come from sales of rhizomes to other would-be hops growers, mostly in Ontario and Quebec.
Her harvested and dried hops are sold to brewers, brewing supply stores including Grape & Grain and Hop & Vine, and to Fort Garry Brewing Company. She’s also had requests for hops from Winnipeg-based craft brewer Half Pints and others.
Demand is high for locally grown hops and there’s definitely room for more suppliers, she said. “The amount I grow is kind of a drop in the bucket.”
But her hops crop is no small affair either. It takes a mountain of light-as-a-feather hops to weigh a pound, and every one of her 225 plants is now producing, at minimum, a pound per plant.
“Harvest is very labour intensive,” says Gowan. “We picked for 18 days straight last August.”
‘We’ includes the family and friends who volunteer to help. Harvest generally begins at the end of August. Each plant is cut down from its trellis, then hauled to the garage where the assembly of hand-pickers deposits the hops into pails lined with laundry bags. Labelled according to variety, the bags are then dried by ambiant air in either the dryer Gowan’s father custom built for them, or a grain dryer they’ve begun to use as volumes of hops rose.
They also have a custom-built plug maker to compress hops into a puck-like pellet. But they’re so busy with picking and drying — all done as quickly as possible to ensure optimum freshness and quality — they hardly have any time to make plugs, said Gowan.
It’s the labour-intensive nature of it all that has her pinning her hopes on use of a mechanical harvester being built by another nearby local hops grower. If it works and they can mechanize some of the harvest, it will open up more opportunities for expansion, she said.
So would devising new ways to pelletize hops, which is the form more desirable for brewers.
“It’s hard when you’re doing this on a small scale because you don’t have the equipment for it. It makes it all really labour intensive,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. But it is getting to be a lot of work.”
Soon to start
That work begins any day now. Last year’s harvest began August 30. Hops maturity is triggered by change in day length, and isn’t weather dependent like other crops, explains Gowan.
“It’s a pretty consistent thing from year to year and it doesn’t matter so much on the type of summer we have,” she said. “Even with a late spring they seem to catch up.”
She doesn’t know how many other Manitobans may be growing hops in any quantity at this time.
“I wish I knew,” she said. “I’d like to start a network so we could communicate more.”
“Harvest is very labour intensive. We picked for 18 days straight last August.”