Move over grapes: it’s hops harvest time in Niagara

Roger Vail hands hops plants to Len Vanhoffen on the harvesting machine at the Niagara College campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake, during the first full-scale harvest of the hop yard on Tuesday. – Paul Forsyth/Metroland

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Niagara has become known far and wide for its top-notch wineries and its seemingly endless vineyards of high-end European grape varieties, but soon it could become known for a crop used to make another alcoholic beverage: beer.

At the Niagara College campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Tuesday, horticulture students gathered to watch as the first full harvest of the college’s new hop yard took place.

Using a specialized harvest machine powered by a tractor, Roger Vail and Len Vanhoffen fed the hop plants reaching up to 20 feet long into the machinery, while Isaac Braun gathered the actual hops that the machine separated from the stalk and leaves.

Gavin Robertson, who manages the campus vineyard and who is helping to co-ordinate the hop yard with the college’s research and development department, said hops used to be a common crop in Ontario many decades ago but eventually the brewing industry came to rely on hops from Germany and the Czech Republic.

The surge in popularity of Ontario’s craft beer industry, which has seen small breweries set up shop in Niagara, is helping to spur a newfound interest in locally-grown hops, said Robertson.

But what hops there are grown in North America are mostly from the Pacific Northwest with its vastly more wet climate, meaning growers here will have to learn how hops grow in Niagara’s climate and soil conditions, he said.

“It’s very much an experimental hop yard,” said Robertson. “Everybody’s dying for local hops (but) we almost have to learn how to farm hops again.”

The acre-and-a-half of hops has 12 varieties such as Cascade, Mount Rainier, Glacier, Nugget, Vanguard, and Sorachi Ace, each of which can impart bitter, zesty, or citric flavours.

“It’s almost like a spice cabinet for brewers,” said Robertson. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Kelly Byer, a research lab technologist with the college’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute Innovation Centre, said the hop yard is serving as a lab in the field to help the college’s teaching brewery and researchers to study moisture content, flavour compounds, and diseases and pests to which the hops are susceptible in Niagara.

“It’s a bit of trial and error to see what’s going to do well here and what’s not going to do as well,” she said.

Robertson said the hops, once dried, will be used by the teaching brewery. Surplus hops will also be available for local craft breweries, he said.

“Craft beer is really riding this energetic wave (and) these supportive industries are coming along,” he said. “The interest in local, local, local (hops) is really high.”

Vail, who has a 700-acre vineyard at his VailMont Vineyards operation in Vineland, now also has seven acres of hops there. The part-time instructor at the campus is also working on planting commercial hop yards for others and is growing the college’s hops yard.