Why aren't Ontario hop farmers feeling the love?
In our humble opinion, (we’d double underline that if we could) it seems like a lot of Ontario craft brewing is done without using Ontario-produced ingredients. There are exceptions, those breweries whose fundamental beliefs and ethos rest in supporting their farming industry peers, after all brewing is historically an agricultural practise. We’re not total purists (yet), but we believe that it is possible to brew quality beer and actively support your neighbour.
Presumably there are multiple factors contributing to the lack of support Ontario growers are feeling. The majority of breweries are predominantly working with international ingredients, we see a few viable explanations why. Breweries brewing “to-style” may require ingredients grown in a particular part of the world to accurately recreate a specific type of beer. Access was a problem for decades, many breweries work with international hops as its what suppliers had. Breweries looking to appease our marketplace’s current obsession with the notion of new, seeking out those coveted ingredients-of-the-moment often lead brewers out-of-country to more established growing regions. Finally, local ingredients can cost more.
There are any number of reasons a brewer would brew to style, often paying homage to beers they enjoy and have a nostalgic connection to. Style guidelines give us benchmarks for quality, flavour and aroma that are based on historic beer and often are how brewers learn to hone their skills. The North American craft beer industry wouldn’t exist without the idea of recreating old world styles. Many breweries started on a foundation of replicating an experience through a specific style of beer. A Bohemian Pilsner wouldn’t be what it is without Czech Saaz, but then again pilsners were not created by mimicking another style, they are a result of their geographical location. Local ingredients should be a source of inspiration to innovate much like the first wave of American craft brewers interpreting European styles with American-grown hops.
Farmers Doing It All
The craft beer industry in Ontario is relatively young in the grand scheme of modern beer. Since craft beer took off breweries have been limited to a handful of large suppliers, who mostly import their hops. As the industry matures more individuals are seeing the opportunity to start producing and selling ingredients that are grown and processed in Ontario. This is only a good thing for local beer (and the environment), but the logistics and organization alone are major hurdles for these small businesses. Farmers in Ontario aren’t only responsible for growing, but for processing, sales, and distribution whereas most established hop growing regions abroad have organized cooperatives to help with these areas and allow the farmers to focus on what they do best, growing hops.
For some reason as an industry we thought it would be smart to start pumping out dozens of one-off releases. This (unfortunately) really seemed to resonate with certain beer drinkers. It can feel like craft beer consumers are a little infatuated with whatever is new, and we taught them that. Yes, it’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s interesting to see the boundaries of beer being pushed yet it feels completely unsustainable. Always striving for different can lead to never having anything of consistent quality. It also means you’re likely not going back to the same small hop farmer who is “only” offering up handful of options, none of which are the new “sexy” hop of the moment.
Cost seems to be a hurdle as local ingredients are not the cheapest option, but than again neither is craft beer! If your bottom line is your primary focus, local ingredients are probably off the table. Anyone in business has the goal of making a profit, however the amount of profit is your choice. Choosing who you work with and where to spend your company’s money really comes down to a brewery’s values and ethics. It seems slightly hypocritical to encourage patrons to support “local beer” without actually doing it ourself. Growing any crop in Ontario can be an unpredictable and a costly undertaking. If we want to see our industry grow and become more sustainable, we need to put our money where our mouth is and buy local ingredients to help those producers grow and not baulk at the cost per pound - which we should stress is not always the most expensive choice. (Sustainability has many facets and brewers should consider the carbon foot print of hops that were shipped in from across the continent or the world, versus what the footprint of locally grown hops might be). As brewers we should understand that efficiencies come with scaling up, scaling up requires growth, growth requires sales and support from the community. As the community, we need to support growers if we want to see them succeed.
Okay cool, so what?
Breweries could support their local hop farmers by working a beer into their consistent offerings that utilize or feature Ontario ingredients. Commit to one special release a quarter that uses 50% Ontario ingredients. Baby steps are great! Talk to local growers to see what they have and design a beer around that as oppose to dreaming up whatever the world can offer, save that for the other 90% of beers you make if that's whats important to you. Transparency and education are key. Willingness to be flexible and work with a live product is literally what we all signed up for as brewers. Farming is much riskier than brewing. A basic ale can be turned around in 14 days - that means a brewery could fill a single tank approx. 26 times in one year. That’s 26 opportunities to produce a product for market. Farmers growing hops and barley harvest once a year. That’s one shot for them, and to be sitting on inventory because all these booming breweries think of them but once a year… you can only imagine how discouraging that would feel. Imagine if our loyal beer drinkers only chose to drink craft but once a year.
Patrons can help push their locally-brewed beer into being locally-sourced through education and awareness. Ask your local brewery which Ontario growers they’re working with, if the answer is no one - ask more questions!