Crack open a cold one and hold it under your nose. Now take a deep slurp. The aroma you smell and the bitterness you taste come from hops, a flavouring and stabilizing ingredient used in beer making.
Right now, all the hops used by breweries in Manitoba is imported. But in a few years, with some luck, local brewers could have a homegrown variety to use in producing their suds.
A project by Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives is trying to develop a variety of hops suitable for local growing conditions.
No one thought it could be done at first. Hops, a flowering plant, are native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, including Oregon, Washington and even British Columbia.
But MAFRI’s Brian Hunt cleared a big hurdle this year by getting root stock from the Pacific Coast to survive a harsh Manitoba winter.
Hunt now has samples of seven different commercial hops varieties growing in a test plot at the Canada-Manitoba Crop Diversification Centre.
He’s also growing some native hops in case it’s needed to help breed a variety specifically for Manitoba conditions.
Native hops grow wild throughout Manitoba. They’re not suitable for beer making, although home brewers sometimes do use it.
Hunt, a MAFRI vegetable and greenhouse specialist, hopes the West Coast plants, planted in the spring of 2008, have established themselves and genetic back-crossing with native stock may not be necessary. But future plans call for cross-pollinating varieties to increase hardiness, yield, vigour and quality.
The flowers are about to bloom and Hunt expects to start picking them in early September. The female flowers, or cones, are the part of hops used in brewing.
Hunt described his hops project during a recent field tour hosted by the Prairie Fruit Growers Association.
Hops is a perennial vine (technically, a “bine”) which dies back in autumn and sends up new shoots in spring. A climbing plant, it can be trained to grow along string or wires in fields called hop yards. Hunt has his hops growing around poles stacked in a teepee-like fashion.
One hops plant can yield up to 200 pounds of flowers. World prices, which recently collapsed below $1.20 a pound because of oversupply, have recovered to around $12.50 a pound. This potentially enables a single plant to produce $2,500 worth of product. Hunt believes hops can be a commercially viable crop at $5 to $7 per pound.
If a suitable variety can be developed, Hunt sees no reason why a local entrepreneur couldn’t become a commercial hops grower. Micro-breweries in Winnipeg have expressed interest, although they’d need a reliable supply of a product which has to meet exacting standards for the highly competitive brewing industry.
But first things first. Hunt says the next step, after developing a Manitoba-grown hops, will be to analyze it and see if it’s good enough to market.
The market might be bigger than brewers. According to recent U. S. research, hops contain substances that control pathogenic bacteria in the intestines of chickens. One such antimicrobial substance, a compound called lupalone, may help control clostridium, a bacterial disease, in chickens. This could make it an antibiotic alternative for poultry flocks.
Hops extract may also have value as a nutraceutical for humans. [email protected]