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Malt!

Ontario Craft Ingredients: Barn Owl Malt

January 15th, 2017 Posted by Feature No Comment yet

In recent years craft brewing has undergone quite the renaissance. Hundreds of new brewers, thousands of new beers and countless loyal craft beer drinkers. Behind the scenes, a second revolution is starting to take shape: The craft growers, cultivators and producers of craft beer ingredients. As part of a three-part series, I’m taking a closer look at a handful of these less-heralded players in the craft beer industry. To finish things up I’m taking a look at a budding malting company by the name of Barn Owl Malt.

Normally when I’m setting out to write one of these articles, I spend a few days doing background research on the ingredient in question. For the previous articles this was fairly straightforward. First you find out who the big guys are using to get their ingredients, then you look into the handful of “big” craft guys. After that you look into the history of the ingredient and try to find as much out as you can about how it’s grown as an industry in Canada. As it turns out, this process didn’t work at all for malt, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, malting is big business. It is well established in Canada, but is also a surprisingly distributed industry with huge facilities operating all over the world. To be honest, I found this pretty daunting. Once the multinational conglomerates are involved it gets pretty tricky to figure out what’s going on in an industry. Luckily for me I happened across an excellent blog post on The Ripley Blog that pretty much covers everything I wanted to cover on the global industry. Heck, he even went and did a great write-up on how malting works for the craft industry. So, continuing to be honest here, I’m not going to write any more about this. If you’re interested, go read it over there.

An old Canada Malting facility

An old Canada Malting facility

 

One thing I did learn while basically skipping out on all the research I normally do for an article is the craft malting industry in Ontario and Canada overall pretty much doesn’t exist. There are a handful of outfits in Quebec and a few more than that in the US who are trying to bring craft back to malting, but that’s about it. You pretty much never hear about or see malt in shops from anyone other than the big guys. The closest thing to a local malting company I had heard of until I started working on this article was BSG Canada, formerly known as Gilbertson & Page. They’re based in Guelph and have been serving home and craft brewers since the 90s, but as near as I can tell they’re really more of a malt distributor than a producer, outside of their OIO line of adjuncts which I don’t consider to technically be malt. So when I heard that a real craft malt house was opening up outside of Belleville, I was pretty excited.

Barn Owl is the result of a lot of hard work from husband and wife duo Devin and Leslie Huffman. After years of travelling and working all over Northern Canada, they decided to settle down on some land just outside of Belleville that belonged to Devin’s grandparent’s, but had been sitting idle for the last 15 years. They actually considered putting the land to use for quite a few things at first, ranging from hobby farm to starting a craft brewery. Looking into the brewery made them realize that craft malting was a largely untouched field in Ontario, which I think was an opportunity that Devin couldn’t help but leap at.

We started looking at the supply chain and we realized that wait a minute, there’s no Ontario grains in this.
Devin Huffman

Starting a brand new industry is an incredibly challenging endeavor, but for a guy like Devin that was part of the appeal. Building something from scratch, in this case not just his own malting system and facility but potentially an entire industry actually intrigued him and as it turns out Devin is a pretty uniquely skilled guy to undertake it. He’s got a background in forestry and plant biology, plus more experience in mechanical engineering, which he needed to build the malting facility by himself. Beyond that he’s also a trained maltster, having spent time at the Canada Malting and Barley Technical Center.

The first step was deciding what kind of maltster he wanted to be. The more common approach is to buy a pneumatic malting system, but that wasn’t something they thought made sense, at least not at the scale (Barn owl can handle about 5 tonnes of malt a week) they were thinking. Instead, Devin opted to build a floor malting system. Floor malting is much cheaper than pneumatic, but much more rustic. To get set up they had to read texts from the 1800s on malting processes since that’s the only place where the knowledge exists. Floor malting is also incredibly labour intensive. With a pneumatic system you can be productive and basically put in regular 9-to-5 hours, but with floor malting you sometimes have to be up at all hours doing hard work. To get a feel for what I’m talking about here, imagine working all day, then needing to get up at 3 in the morning and shoveling your driveway. Well, if your driveway has 5 tonnes of snow on it. I guess it’s more like shoveling every driveway on your street. So yeah, floor malting is rare.

Devin turning the malt

Devin turning the malt

 

At first they looked into finding a space in Belleville, but that turned out to be difficult due to regulations and red tape. Plus, even with a pre-existing building they’d have to retrofit extensively, so they opted to build their own building instead. As Devin described it building was hard, but not that bad. The biggest obstacle was regulations. It’s hard to peg where in the building code a malt house lives, mostly because nobody has done it before so there’s no precedent. Originally they were classified as a distillery, which would have made the whole operation impossible. For a while they were looking like a grain elevator, which would have crushed them on insurance costs. After 11-12 months of negotiating with the government for permits they started construction in December of 2015. A few months later (I visited them in the summer) they were up and running.

The overall process isn’t actually all that complicated, but as with so many manual processes the devil really is in the details. The floor in floor malting turns out to be nothing more than a polished concrete slab in a climate controlled building. The only real difference between it and any other warehouse floor is this floor needs to be kept clean like any other food preparation facility. The first step in the process is steeping raw barley in a large tank until it hits a target moisture content. Then they drain the tank and spread the barley out on the floor wait for signs of germination, which is triggered by the steeping. The thing that happens during, or just before germination that we’re interested in is the conversion of the starches, which are bad food for yeast, that occur naturally in barley into sugars, which are great food for yeast.

Floor Malting is pretty much what it sounds like.

Floor Malting is pretty much what it sounds like.

 

The tricky part of a floor malting system is all about heat management. When wet barley is germinating on the floor it gives off a lot of heat. If it gets too hot, you can end up with moulds or off flavours in the finished product. If it gets too cold, germination is stalled and starch conversion grinds to a halt. Getting too hot is the more common problem, Devin says they have to run the AC in the malt house even when the outside temperature dips below 0 degrees. To help dissipate the heat and keep all the grain in the bed moving at the same speed it’s necessary to turn the bed (Devin uses a snow shovel) every 6 or 8 hours. Further complicating matters, it turns out that every batch of barley has slightly different moisture content and other characteristics, meaning that every time they work with a new supply they have to dial in their malting system to optimize it for that specific barley. At the end of the day it’s a delicate balance between turning to dissipate heat, piling more on the grain bed to increase production and not turning too much and damaging the grain.

When the texture of the barley changes they know that the starch modification is nearly complete and they can move on to kilning the barley, which basically just means toasting it in a giant toaster oven. Once kilning is done and the barley (now malt) is cooled, the process is done and it can be packaged and sent off to the brewers to make their magic.

Lots and lots of malt

Lots and lots of malt

 

Because they have to dial the system in for each batch of barley, they prefer larger farms. In the Western provinces a maltster could buy directly from a grain elevator, which tends to sell very uniform and high quality malt. Unfortunately in Ontario there are no grain elevators and most barley is grown in smaller batches, normally just a few acres at a time, because it’s not a common crop here and it’s hard for a farmer to justify growing it as their primary crop. Barley growers face a lot of obstacles, especially in Ontario. Typically farmers who grow barley do so without a contract, meaning there’s no guarantee that they sell their product at the end of the year. Before Barn Owl came around, the only way to sell their crop at the end of the year was to take it to a big malt house like The Canada Malting Company. Canada malting is very strict with their quality standard, which they need to be to produce a consistent product. 20% is the average selection rate, which is not very appealing for Ontario farmers. In the prairies if they couldn’t sell to a malting company they could at least unload it to an elevator for feed and recoup some of their costs. Here, they pretty much have to dig a hole and bury it.

A big part of our business is working on facilitating that barrier to growers
Devin Huffman

It’s worth pointing out that Canada Malting and the other big malt houses actually do make a very good product. It’s very consistent, very predictable and for those reasons lends itself very well to producing repeatable batches of beer. There’s nothing wrong with that, but one of the things I really like about Barn Owl is they’re not just trying to repeat that model with the craft moniker on top. Instead, they’re embracing that other 80% of malt for it’s variety and the more complex flavours it imparts. This involves creating a modified standard of quality for craft malting. Because their system is so hands on and individually managed, Barn Owl can work very well with barley that isn’t up to industry standards.

What we’re looking for, what we’re trying to highlight with a malt house like this are annual variations, the terroir of Ontario grains.
Devin Huffman

Working with smaller, more variable batches has advantages. Variations in batches from farm to farm and year to year should produce unique qualities for each batch. Where the grain in a bag of malt from a large malt house might have come from ten or twelve farms, every bag of Barn Owl malt will be single-origin. This allows ambitious brewers to match recipes to specific batches of grain, or more importantly select a malt with specific characteristics they are looking for.

As with most other small producers, the key for Barn Owl is finding brewers who are willing to work with them to make the most of local ingredients. Many breweries have shown interest so far, with the strongest demand coming from the nearest breweries in Prince Edward county. This is a natural partnership, since these breweries are best positioned to take advantage of the marketing benefits of using local ingredients. With a couple of hop growers popping up in the county its becoming possible for brewers like Church Key, Barley Days or the MacKinnon brothers to make a beer from entirely locally-sourced ingredients.

Hands on brewers are best!

Hands on brewers are best!

 

Devin is able to kiln malt to more or less any level of darkness, but the plan in the early days is to focus on a brand of “pale malt” which would be suitable for lighter beers and pale ales. They’ll make a lot of the flagship, but probably offer special runs of darker stuff on special request from brewers. He plans to eventually expand the lineup to include two or three base lines and get to the point where he can make any ind of malt a brewer demands.

We try to avoid identifying with and comparing to base malt. Base malt is bland and it’s just about getting the gravity up. Whereas our malt, we’d like to be able to have extraction levels, conversion times and enzyme levels that are comparable to base malt but really it’s a stand alone barley that you could make really nice ales with a single one of our barleys. There would be enough flavor in it, enough profile and character and colour.
Devin Huffman

In what has become a trend for craft producers, Devin values the homebrew market. This is partly because from the very beginning home brewers were among his biggest supporters and were eager to try out his stuff. He views home brewers as an outlet to do things a little more creatively. That could help them develop new kilning routines to come up with his version of say, a crystal or maybe a smoked malt. Barn Owl have already found their way into homebrew shops and they say they intend to set aside a certain percentage of their capacity specifically for the homebrew community. I recently got a bag of their pale malt myself and I was very impressed. Tasting it raw I could immediately tell this stuff has a lot more character than your typical bag of 2-row. I used it to make a hoppy pale ale that came in around 4.8% alcohol. In brewing it behaved exactly as other malts I’ve used, but the beer had a very satisfying body without any adjuncts.

 

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Ontario Craft Ingredients: Escarpment Yeast

December 23rd, 2015 Posted by Feature 2 comments

In recent years craft brewing has undergone quite the renaissance. Hundreds of new brewers, thousands of new beers and countless loyal craft beer drinkers. Behind the scenes, a second revolution is starting to take shape: The craft growers, cultivators and producers of craft beer ingredients. As part of a three-part series, I’m taking a closer look at a handful of these less-heralded players in the craft beer industry. This time I’m profiling a promising young company by the name of Escarpment Laboratories.

Of the four primary ingredients in beer, none has as great an impact on beer as yeast. It gives a saison its peppery zip and a hefeweizen its notes of bananas and cloves. Different strains of yeast lend an incredible range of attributes to beer, from the clean crispness of a bohemian pilsner to the complex layers of flavour found in a Belgian quad. It even has an important role to play in styles where it doesn’t come to the forefront, such as the you-might-as-well-gargle-hops American India Pale Ales that are pretty much ubiquitous with craft beer these days. John Kimmich, the brewer behind Heady Topper, which is pretty much the pinnacle of the style, has been known to credit the so-called Conan yeast strain as the factor that sets his beers apart. There’s also the all-important contribution of alcohol to the finished product, which cannot be overlooked.

For all its importance, yeast is easily the least-understood ingredient in beer. For most of beer’s history yeast was a complete mystery. It was first observed by Dutch naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek in 1680, who didn’t recognize it as a living organism but rather “globular structures” of some sort. The process of fermentation wasn’t known to be caused by microorganisms until 1857, when Louis Pasteur published Mémoire Sur La Fermentation Alcoolique.  Keep in mind that beer is old. Very, very old. It has been mentioned in countless historical texts, from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Hymn of Ninkasi and The Bible . The oldest known recipe for beer was found on the Ebla Tablets, which date to around 2500 BC, but archaeological findings indicate that beer was being made in China as far back as seven thousand years ago. That means that we’ve only known about a critical ingredient in beer for maybe 2% of its history!

The reality is that beer was an accident that must have appeared at various times and places throughout history, shortly after a civilization started cultivating grains. The advent of beer was inevitable, thanks to the inherent properties of yeast. Yeast can be found almost anywhere: It’s found on apples, it’s found in fields, it floats through the air and on one occasion it was found in a brewmaster’s beard. All it takes for fermentation to take place is for some of that airborne yeast to come in contact with some water and a source of sugar, such as barley. Early beers were probably the result of a sort of porridge that someone left lying around long enough that it started to ferment spontaneously thanks to some airborne yeast. Someone, somewhere, was hungry enough to choke down the bubbly goop anyway and it made them feel good. From there it’s just a matter of repeating and refining the process to eventually get to something that we would recognize as beer.

Over the next 6600 years or so, most of what we learned about yeast was attributed to a mix of magic and superstition. For example, early brewers figured out that re-using fermenting vessels without cleaning them between batches produced better results, but they had no way of knowing that was due to the residual yeast. Over the years this led to a lot of brewing traditions that brewers underwent without understanding the reasons for them, such as Lambic brewers washing the walls of a new brewery with beer before producing beer in it.

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By my estimation, that’s about $800 of beer in that sprayer.

 

Industrial production of yeast didn’t get started until relatively recently. Yeast companies started popping up simultaneously in the 1800’s all over the Western world. The oldest Canadian example I can find is Lallemand, which was founded in Montreal at the end of the 19th century by a French immigrant. As the makers of the Danstar brand of yeast, they’re easily the biggest (partly) Canadian name in the industry. Skipping over a hundred or so years of technical and scientific innovation, the modern yeast industry for beer got going in the 1980’s with the founding of companies like Wyeast and White Labs. While the craft beer industry was experimenting with new styles and ingredients, companies like these were experimenting with newly discovered and exotic yeast strains. They have been very successful, to the point that the current beer yeast market is dominated by only a handful of companies. At this point, calling those companies “craft” is a stretch, simply due to their size. However, there’s another group of emerging yeast companies that are worthy of the label, which tend to focus on exotic and wild strains of yeast that have funky or sour flavour profiles. One of these companies just happens to be starting up in our backyard: Escarpment Labs.

I sat down with co-founders Angus Ross and Richard Preiss over pints of Richard’s home brew gose (which, by the way, was excellent. If Richard ever offers you a beer you should drink it). Currently finishing up masters degrees in microbiology and molecular biology in a program offered by the University of Guelph that specializes in yeast, these guys are uniquely qualified to get into the yeast game. They actually met working in a yeast lab, where they discovered they had common interests, or, as Richard put it “beer, food, arguing about beer and food.” In a program that most people enter to either further a career in education or to get into scientific research, these guys knew from the start they wanted to apply what they learned to beer. At first they started experimenting with yeast at the home brew scale, mostly as a hobby. Then they started thinking about how the stuff they were learning about in school and tinkering with at home could be applied to the professional scale.

At that point it was really exploratory. We were working with Royal City, but then we also approached Wellington, and Block Three and a few other local breweries. We wanted to see what they were interested in and if they would try out some of our yeast or some of our ideas and thankfully they did. I think that really gave us the confidence to start to pursue it as a serious business.
-Richard Preiss

From there they explored working out of a local brewery. Royal City didn’t have the space and Sonehammer – then F & M – didn’t work out for one reason or another, but eventually they talked to Wellington, who ended up being the ideal partner. As one of the oldest brands around and a member of the OCB they know pretty much everyone in the industry. They’re also a 24-hour brewery, so there’s always some wort around. Better still, they actually already had a lab of their own that they use to do quality control (QC) and they were willing to share.

Escarpment have banked three hundred strains of yeast and counting, which is enough to make pretty much any and every style of beer. Where would an aspiring young company get their hands on that many strains of yeast, you might wonder? It turns out that nobody really owns patents on most commercial yeasts, so just having a beer made with one is usually enough to a viable sample from, which you can then bank, grow and eventually sell. It took them years, starting out saving the dregs from good beers they tried, eventually growing that into a formidable collection of strains. More exotic stuff, like Brettanomyces (aka Brett), the provider (and I swear these are all positive flavours) of funky, horse-blanket and well, manure aromas, or Lactobacillus (aka lacto), the most common souring strain which is technically a bacteria, not a yeast, tended to come from rarer bottles of beers. A mixed-fermentation beer like a Lambic or American Wild Ale could be a gold mine, yielding four or five rare strains each. They’ve also put some effort into isolating some truly wild strains, taking samples from local apple orchards or hop farms to get their hands on some really unique flavours.

As far as I know, there’s no reason whatsoever to harvest yeast from hops over any other source other than it’s kinda neat.

 

When I talked to a hop farmer, she gushed about the terroir of Ontario hops. The yeast guys were a little split on whether Ontario yeast has a distinctive flavour. According to Richard, the dominant character in all wild yeast from everywhere in the world is that they are, well, wild. Wild strains are high ester and phenol producers (phenols being volatile organic compounds and esters being chemical compounds that are normally derived from phenols, both produce a wide range of flavours in beer) and have wildly different fermentation characteristics. Some wild yeasts will quit at 2 or 3% alcohol, where others will ferment things up to 8% or higher. Angus is also reserved, but maybe a little more optimistic.

I’d say that we don’t actually know yet. We haven’t tested enough different wild Ontario strains to really have a clear picture of what the flavour profile of Ontario yeasts. I think we’re hoping to find an Ontario characteristic but we’ve really only moved forward with commercialization of one or two wild strains. I think in the future with a larger sample size of things that ferment well we may uncover there’s a terroir, there’s a taste of a place.
-Angus Ross

The wild stuff seems to be what’s generating the most interest. Early backers like Folly Brewing are making their flagship beer with Escarpment farmhouse strains, which they proudly label as being made with Ontario yeast. (Folly are a very cool outfit who you might remember from Denis’ recent piece).  I certainly came at this article most interested in the wild stuff, since I like the styles made with those yeasts. However, the reality is if Escarpment is to be a long-term success, they’re probably going to do most of their business off lots of pitches of more mundane ale and lager strains that brewers can use to make their core brands.

Not all yeast is harvested from picturesque moss-covered rocks beside bubbling brooks with a conveniently placed pine sprig for ambience.

 

These days brewers normally buy liquid yeast from three large companies in the US or dry yeast from a local distributor. The big guys don’t just buy individual vials of yeast, like I would when I make beer at home, they pitch gallons of it into a single batch of beer. When I make beer I also keep some yeast aside from each batch in the fridge to use in future brews, partly because I’m a dork who finds that sort of thing interesting, but also to save money. Brewers can do essentially the same thing, but they have to be a little more careful about it. Before storing, most will give their yeasts an acid wash to get rid of any possible infections that could have been introduced during brewing. I don’t know it for a fact, but I strongly suspect their storage techniques are a little more advanced than my collection of mason jars in the fridge door. Even with the best care, yeast strains will change their character a little every time you use them. To keep a consistent flavour, many brewers will only re-pitch eight or so times before going back to the original strain, where others will go up to 20 or 30 batches. Some brewers, especially the old-school guys who have been around forever just pitch ad infinitum, which can help explain the migrating flavour patterns you might have noticed in some of the brands that have been around a while.

Luckily for the guys at Escarpment, their appeal to local brewers extends beyond novelty strains and the marketability of a local product. Their big edge is geography. They’re much closer to Ontario brewers than any of the big yeast companies, which means they can get product to the brewers faster than the competition. Maybe their biggest advantage is they don’t have to cross any borders. Not only is it time consuming and expensive to do so, but it’s also not unheard of for customs to open a shipment of yeast and inspect its contents, in the process melting the ice packs the yeast was shipped with and sometimes tainting the shipment. What that all adds up to is Escarpment can not only deliver a superior product, but they can also add that small business personalized service for local brewers. They’re also cheaper than the big guys, which is probably the most important thing at the end of the day.

Given those advantages, demand has understandably been pretty brisk. Ever since they started producing commercial pitches in late June, demand has far outstripped supply. Like most craft producers in the province, they’re still best suited to meeting demand for one-off or seasonable beers with limited distribution. They can currently do pitches for 20 hl batches comfortably (that’s just shy of 60 kegs of beer, or about 100 standard-sized homebrew batches) or 40 hl if they put their minds to it. They’re adding capacity quickly, but the reality is demand is probably going to outstrip supply well into 2016.

We approached pro brewers and said ‘Hey, we’ve got these funky yeast strains, you want to give them a shot?’ That was a lot of fun.
-Angus Ross

Although drumming up orders hasn’t been much of an issue for them, I shouldn’t give you the impression that everything has been easy. Unlike almost every other part of the craft brewing industry that I’ve been exposed to, growing yeast is an area where nobody else in the business will help you out. Angus and Richard are a little lucky, since they can get some help from the other people involved in the yeast program at UoG, but even if they had local contemporaries the reality is nobody would share any information. Home brewers like me (have I mentioned enough times yet that I brew at home?) out there are probably a little confused as to why there’s so much secrecy in the industry, as yeast is pretty straight-forward to grow on the small scale. When you make the jump to the commercial scale things tend to get a lot more complicated. You have to deal with different nutritional, aeration, efficiency and other technical considerations that otherwise don’t exist. Plus since you can’t protect your strains, process is everything.

It’s not like starting a brewery where everyone is very willing to share what they’re doing. If you’re making beer you’re going to be able to find ten other people in your town or province who will teach you how to make your beer better. That doesn’t really work for the ingredient supply chain. Especially with yeast where the techniques that are used to grow yeast are largely kept as a trade secret.
-Richard Preiss

Since process is everything, the Escarpment guys wouldn’t tell me much about theirs. In fact, they even balked at me going to their lab to take pictures for the article, so they’re clearly keen to keep their process as secret as it can be. That said, here’s my best guess about their process. At heart, it’s not that different from making beer. The basic process is going to be that you start with wort that’s roughly the same as the beer the yeast will eventually be pitched into, since once yeast adapts to a local environment it will continue to perform better in that environment. In lower concentrations yeast tends to reproduce, whereas in higher concentrations it tends to produce more alcohol, so they’re definitely stepping up their batches in sizes, from beaker, to jug, to carboy. The equipment used (outside of the storage part of the operation, where they would need a centrifuge and a very cold freezer) is probably about on par with a high-end home brew or a brewery’s pilot system with a handful of fermenters and definitely temperature controllers to ensure precise fermentation. Given that their lab is inside a brewery, they probably buy or more likely trade for their wort. The trick in all of this is every yeast strain will behave a little differently. To produce an optimal product you have to know exactly how each strain behaves at each step of the process. How many steps do you need to get to your final cell count? What temperature should each step run at? How much nutrient should you give it at each step? What pH should the wort be? Getting to know each particular strain intimately is necessary to optimize this process, which is probably why while Escarpment have hundreds of strains banked, most of the beers you’ll see out there are only made with one a couple dozen of these strains so far.

Growing strains for some yeast trials. A lot of what they do is try stuff out on smaller scales like this.

 

This actually touches on another potential area of business for Escarpment: Quality Control (QC). Earlier I touched on how breweries will try to pitch the same strain of yeast a few times themselves, to try to keep costs down. This is a good idea, but how are they to know if a yeast colony is healthy enough to be pitched again, or if some kind of infection has found its way into the pitch or the final product? The answer is QC. The actual process involves a lot of fairly mundane work carefully inspecting ingredients, machinery and finished product for infections, but this is something that big breweries do a lot of and craft brewers, particularly in Ontario ought to do a lot more of.

Have you ever had a beer from a brewery and liked it a lot, only to have it again a few months later and find it, sour, funky, dull or otherwise unsatisfying? This is far too common a thing in Ontario and while changes from batch to batch can be caused by many things, a lot of them could be caught and remedied by more stringent QC. If you look at regions in the US where craft beer is a little more mature than it is here, you’ll find that after the big surge in the number of craft brewers, there was a bit of a contraction as weaker breweries were pushed out of the market. The breweries that survive tend to be those that can consistently put out a high quality product and to do that I think you need good QC.

I’ve visited breweries in the US that are about the same size as most of the breweries that have started up in the last two or so years here. The key difference between those breweries in the US, that are achieving world-wide renown, and the ones of the same size here is the ones in the US have labs and lab staff. And they’re doing QC. This is a major difference that I don’t really see here.
-Richard Preiss

So, three thousand or so words later, what can the average home brewer or consumer who is reading this do to take advantage of this new company? Unfortunately, not much just yet. The big companies sell lots of yeast to home brewers, but that’s simply too much work for too little volume for a company like Escarpment to tackle directly at this point. The good news is the founders are avid home brewers, so they definitely have plans to eventually make their stuff available to us to use, via your local home brew supply shop, starting sometime in 2016. For now all we can do is keep an eye out for beers that are marketed as being made with Ontario yeast. In the past year there were quite a few of them that you might remember. The official beer of the Session beer festival this year was a gose which was made with a lacto strain donated by Escarpment. At that same festival the Ontario Craft Brewers had a tasty table beer that was a 25-brewery collaboration that used Escarpment yeast harvested from a local russet apple. A couple cider makers in Revel and West Avenue have, in my opinion, done some of the best things out there with Escarpment yeast in their wild cider offerings. Going forward, keep your eyes peeled for a LCBO listing from Royal City, more stuff from Folly and Burdock in their brewshops, lots of things at various festivals around the province and I’m sure lots more that will develop in the new year. Fans of wild strains in particular should keep a look out for details on a big wild yeast isolation project that should land sometime in the next year.

Coming Soon?

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Ontario Craft Ingredients: Clear Valley Hops

October 20th, 2015 Posted by Feature 3 comments

In recent years craft brewing has undergone quite the renaissance. Hundreds of new brewers, thousands of new beers and countless loyal craft beer drinkers. Behind the scenes, a second revolution is starting to take shape: the craft growers, cultivators and producers of craft beer ingredients. As part of a three-part series, I’m taking a closer look at a handful of these less-heralded players in the craft beer industry. First up: Clear Valley Hops.

Located in the heart of the tiny village of Nottawa, Ontario, in the shadow of the Blue Mountains, Clear Valley Hops is a bit of a unique entity in Ontario. For one thing, they’re very well branded. If you take the 124 to Collingwood, you’ll see their trendy sign right beside the road. If you look up their website you’ll find a slick interface, complete with a blog, online store, and all the other bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern website. Perhaps this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise; Clear Valley is the product of John Craig, who once made a living in technology, and Laurie Thatcher-Craig, who worked in advertising and marketing. Ditching their day jobs, the couple purchased the land in 2011 and started producing hops commercially in 2012. The other thing that sets Clear Valley apart is their size. Most hop farms in Ontario are either side projects of farms that mostly focus on other crops, or hobby farms that are just an acre or two. According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food & Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), there are about 32 hop growers in Ontario who combine to have a total of 60 acres under cultivation. Clear Valley currently have 13 acres, with plans to expand to 20 and beyond in the coming years.

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Just one row of many.

 

By the standards of modern agriculture,  hop production in Ontario is currently done on a downright minuscule scale. The average farm size in Ontario was 244 acres in 2011; more than 4 times all the hop farms in Ontario combined. That said, it would be misleading to call hop farming a new industry here. Before prohibition, Ontario and upstate New York were the leading suppliers of hops into Milwaukee, the major brewing centre in the region at the time. At its peak, New York had over 40,000 acres of hops under cultivation. The records for Ontario have been lost over time, but it was considered a substantial producer, so it there were certainly thousands of acres under cultivation. Then came prohibition, along with some crippling diseases and hop production in the Northeast has never really recovered. For the better part of the next century growing hops was largely the concern of European farms. It wasn’t until the American craft beer revolution took hold that hops started to be grown in North America again on any real scale, mostly centered around the Pacific Northwest and in particular the Yakima valley.

In the early days, a large proportion of the growers in Yakima were contracted to deliver their entire crops to the American brewing behemoth, Anheuser-Busch (AB). A few years later AB merged with InBev and all the hop contracts dried up, which inadvertently produced the biggest shift in the hops industry since prohibition. With stiff competition from European growers for traditional varieties, the growers in Yakima turned their focus to the relatively new and fast-growing craft beer industry and started producing massive amounts of the citrus-forward varieties that American craft beer has come to be known for. The rest, as they say, is history.

But what of the Northeast, the former major area of hops cultivation? To be honest, not much happened here until the craft brewing craze took hold in the early 2000s. To support the fledgling industry, the University of Vermont started an agricultural program around the cultivation of hops. One of the artifacts of this program was a manual on growing hops in the Northeast, written by Rosalie Madden. This manual eventually found its way into the hands of the Craigs, who were considering getting into the industry. This manual contained a lot of useful information, but it was geared towards the most common growers in the region at the time: hobby farmers and passion projects. As a result, the widely-used manual was mostly written for tiny farms, which would have no more than one or two acres of hops planted. Laurie and John, on the other hand, approached hops as a business from the outset. Rather than simply doing what everyone else in the region was doing, they set out to see how hops were being cultivated around the world, to try to find a model that would make sense in Ontario.

“The average size farm in Germany is 30 acres, the average size farm in Yakima, Washington is 650. Extremely different models.” Laurie told me, over a picnic table on their farm on a sunny June day. “Our farm, we modelled it after the German model, not the American.” In 2013 they attended the University Of Vermont’s annual hop conference. This conference included feedback from local brewers, which was largely negative due to various factors like mould, insects, and a lack of preservation techniques such as pelletization and freezing. This was bad news for most of the attending farmers. “You could have heard a pin drop in that room because you’re talking major expenditures and you’ve got 2 acres and the math doesn’t add up.” But for the Craigs, this wasn’t news. They had always been thinking bigger, starting out with a plot of land with 50 acres that is suitable for growing hops, and an initial goal to get in the range of the German family farms they were modelling themselves after by cultivating around 20 acres.

Even getting started on limited acreage is a considerable effort. Hops, as a general rule, are not an inexpensive crop. For one thing, you need to have sand or sandy loam for your soil and ready access to lots of water. Hops like lots of water, but will die off if they’re in standing water. For another thing, to be productive you need to be growing in certain specific areas. If you’re under the 40th parallel North the days are too short in the summer. If you’re over the 49th, they’re too long. The Yakima valley is around the 47th parallel and the Collingwood area is around 45, which makes both ideal for growing hops. Once you’ve got suitable soil on a plot of land in the right place, hops have other special requirements, such as the need to grow to a considerable height, which is usually achieved by planting telephone poles with wires hung between them. All said and done, it costs anywhere from 15,000$-50,000$ US to plant an acre of Hops.

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Two or three bines per strand. Two strands per plant. Thousands of plants.

 

Clear Valley started out growing on roughly 13 acres. To do that they need to string 22,00 coconut fibre strings over a three week period every spring. Each string can carry three bines and each of their 11,000 or so plants can support six bines, or two strings. If everything goes well, that produces about 9,000 pounds of dried hops each fall. Their first year was one of the worst droughts the area had ever seen and they lost 9 of their 13 acres. Drought is only the beginning, there are any number of dangers for a crop in Ontario: Downy mildew, aphids, spider-mites and any number of other issues they haven’t even run into yet.  “This is not a crop you can be a hobby farmer with” Laurie told me “This crop, I am telling you, if you turn your back for two seconds you will have a problem.” Even worse, since this is so new to Ontario, they can’t even mitigate the risks with crop insurance, because that insurance requires 5 years of yields data. “If a tornado comes over and wipes us out, that’s it. We’re done for. Very high risk – most people don’t understand that.”  The end result is a huge amount of risk and a huge amount of work: John and Laurie work about 80 hours a week from spring to fall.

This work is not only spent growing hops. From the moment harvest starts in late August every year, an unforgiving clock starts to get everything packaged in a suitable manner to preserve that precious aroma in the product. Laurie explained: “When this crop comes online for harvest you have approximately a seven day window to do it in to get the peak oils from this plant. If you go too long you’re going to miss it and the product will no longer give a good flavour into the beer. By having 18 varieties what you’re doing is making sure your harvest window is nice and wide.” Since different varieties matures at different times, having 18 varieties instead of planting only what sells best, which would mean planting nothing but cascade, they can spread out the labours of harvesting the hops and produce more while maintaining their freshness standards.

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What it’s all about. Lots and lots of these.

 

A lot of energy goes into producing the freshest possible hops. The first challenge is drying the hops, which they approached by building an oast. Theirs is a replica of oasts from Sussex, except with the structure made of dense cinder-blocks which temper the wild swings in the Ontario climate. “The Americans and Europeans dry their hops at 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Research from Oregon State University found that when you do that, you’re cooking out all the essential oils. Essential oils immediately degrade after 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so our Oast is drying the hops at 115 degrees.” An oast is basically a structure with a roof that turns naturally in the wind, causing an updraft which sucks warm air up through the hops. It’s an old, but effective technology.

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Their 1973 Hopenflucker. “It’s a beast of a workhorse.” This beast pulls the hop flowers of the bines and drops them on a conveyor belt, which deposits the hops in the oast.

 

Unlike the larger American hop farms, where crops are compressed into bales and warehoused for extended periods during which light and oxygen can ruin flavour-producing oils, the goal at Clear Valley is to pelletize, vacuum seal, nitrogen flush and flash freeze hops within 24 hours of harvest. Even the packaging has been given special attention. “We worked with a company in Manitoba to create a bag that blocks UV light and oxygen completely once they’re put into it, so it preserves the hops for years. We have, I believe, the freshest hops in the world.”

This attention to every detail of the process of getting a quality product out is truly representative of people who take the term craft to heart. Rather than focusing on productivity or profits per acre, a craft producer is primarily interested in producing the best product they can, then putting it in the hands of people who know what to do with it. Laurie acknowledges that working their way into a market that is so used to importing all their hops was no small feat. “We’re very focused on our breweries in Ontario. Making this viable. Demonstrating (hop farming) can be brought back into Ontario.” It turns out this wasn’t actually easy, but one brewery in particular took a chance on them:

No-one believed we could do it. It’s been very very difficult. I always tell everybody I give a huge credit to Joel Manning at Mill Street. No-one would really have much to do with us. One day I sent out little samples in the mail to all these breweries to show them what we could do – it was cascade – and Joel Manning told me this story. He said he was away on holidays for a couple of weeks and that package sat on my desk. It wasn’t frozen, it wasn’t refrigerated, it sat on my desk for weeks. He said he came back from holidays and they laughed, they thought they were going to smell mould. He opened it up and he said he fell off his chair, his brewmaster fell off his chair and he says ‘Laurie I couldn’t pick up the phone fast enough to find up what you guys are up to’. He came out right away…He said ‘We’re here. Mill Street is here for you and we’re going to stay with you’ and it was the best news I had heard. He was the first to have any confidence in us.

Since then, their portfolio of brewers has grown considerably. It includes the likes of Amsterdam, Lake of Bays, Wellington, Boxing Rock (out of Nova Scotia), Dominion Brewing, Niagara Teachers College, the newly launched Tobermory Brewing Compay, Maclean’s Ales and Revel Cider, who have basically monopolized the crop of the mysterious Hop X for their excellent dry-hopped ciders. Even if they are the biggest hop farm around, Clear Valley is still a fairly small operation, which would be hard pressed to supply all the hops for a widely distributed beer. Instead, they try to establish a relationship with brewers who are willing to experiment what they have available. This collaboration with brewers lends itself well to seasonal or one-off releases that produces things like a saison dry-hopped with nugget for Dominion City and the Lake of Bays Far North series. According to Laurie “one-off stuff is ideal for your local growers because I can’t grow everything that everybody wants at the same quantity. It’s better for them to work with me to work with what I have. ”

The reward for working with them is access to a fairly unique product. Hops are a product that very much has terroir; East Kent Goldings grown outside of Kent just doesn’t taste the same as it does in its homeland, nor does Hallertau grown outside of Bavaria. What exactly defines the Ontario terroir is still being discovered, but the early results tend toward citrus, which is a good thing in the current craft beer scene. Laurie swears that her Willamette, a variety normally associated with floral and spicy notes, comes in like orange marmalade. Perle, a German hop, comes in like lemon meringue pie. Since ordering from Clear Valley won’t produce textbook flavours, they figure that the best thing for a brewery to do is visit.

The real craft brewers that take the time to come and see us and understand what we’re doing here and understand our packaging policy and understand the environment that we’re all in to give them the best fricking quality in the world. The brewers that come out here and talk to us and learn all this stay with us. If there’s one message I want to get across it’s that they need to do this. They need to educate themselves as to what happens on this farm and how important this product is to their business model. I don’t want you buy me just because I’m “local” I want you to buy from me because I’m giving you the best product on the market for your money. And we believe that. We believe we are giving them the best product on the market.

When I first reached out to them to be featured in this article, I was a little worried that I would be imposing on them. I figured that in the current hyped-up craft beer environment in Ontario and what with Clear Valley being the biggest and, in my opinion, most interesting hop growers to appear on the Ontario market in a long time, they would be getting a lot of media attention. As it turns out, this wasn’t the case. The focus these days remains squarely on the brewers. Outside of a few local papers, not many people have really come calling on Clear Valley to learn more about what they’re doing. This is a shame. Knowing of and rewarding local producers can only encourage more and better local production, which I believe will ultimately produce better local beer.

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It smells amazing here. You should visit.

 

For their part, Clear Valley are actually doing a pretty good job of reaching out. They have a respectable website and they update their Facebook and Twitter accounts regularly. They even maintained a blog that goes into greater detail on specific parts of their operation. As an added bonus, Clear Valley will actually deal with individual buyers! They have an online store where you can buy any of their available hops in sizes ranging from 4 ounces to 11 pounds. The easier route for a farm would be to simply sell directly to brewers and maybe a few homebrew supply shops, since packaging and shipping for individual customers is often more hassle than it’s worth. Better still, last year Clear Valley started selling hop rhizomes, which is terrific for the home brewer with some space in their back yard. I’m not personally familiar with the economics, but I can’t imagine that selling rhizomes to home brewers does anything like the volume to merit the effort. I suspect they do it just because they just think it’s great that people are interested. (A word of warning: rhizomes sell out. E-mail them the winter before you want to plant and they’ll put you on the list.)

One of the things that needs to happen for the Ontario craft beer industry to take that next step forward is people who are currently into craft beer, particularly the people who are deep enough into craft beer to read to the end of this article, need to take an interest in the local industry beyond the brewers. Get out there and decide for yourself who makes the best ingredients around. Clear Valley offer free tours of the farm on weekends, which I highly recommend, especially if you’re in the Collingwood or Wasaga Beach area anyway in the summer. It’s a great way to learn more about them and what they do, plus Laurie is more than happy to answer any questions you might have. The best part though, for a beer geek and home brewer like me, is at the end they just set you loose to explore the farm on your own. Picture yourself on the back farm, mountains in the background, surrounded by rows of hops as far as you can see, without another soul in sight. It’s worth checking out.