The harvest marks the end of the growing season, but also the beginning of bounty – and in this case bounteous amounts of beer, which is always a good thing.
While craft beer is a true labour of love, it’s not often brewers will spend the hours it takes to handpick hops, adding them afterward to the barley, water and yeast that eventually becomes beer.
With promise of “beery refreshments,” I was happy to join the early-September harvest. Our first stop was Ignatius, a community farm located in Guelph, Ontario, and home to vines bearing the elusive Bertwell hop.
Bertwells are believed to be Ontario’s only indigenous hop variety. The province isn’t considered a hop-growing region, which makes the Bertwells a unique freak of nature. Mike Driscoll, owner of Harvest Hop & Malt, grows the crop exclusively, along with associate farmers in the area.
Legend has it a small vine of Bertwells sprouted alongside a highway in Prince Edward County. Driscoll took a chance on the hops, and now boasts a number of flowering trellises that he tends to using organic farming methods. Hops are ready to harvest when the flowers are sticky and contain a resinous yellow powder known as lupulin
If you ask Driscoll for a rootstock, he may just ask you for your firstborn. The hives that can arise from hop harvesting, I learned the hard way, are free of charge (hops have tiny hairs that can cause skin rashes).
The Bertwell aroma is a mingling of citrus and orange pekoe tea. The fragrance is fitting: Bertwells are thought to be of British origin, and are suited to crafting British ales. It is believed early British settlers abandoned the hop, giving it decades to adapt to Ontario’s terroir and thrive in its climate.
Part two of our hop-harvesting mission took us to Ardyne, a family-run farm in the heart of Puslinch. After having collectively picked 61 kilograms of hops (135 pounds) at Ignatius a few days prior, I was wiser for the wear.
This time I came prepared: long sleeves, pants and work boots to protect me against hop itch, and India Pale Ales to keep me motivated (turns out the “beery refreshments” at Ignatius were a cruel ruse).
As well as the hard work and talent that go into making a beer, how a beer is branded will ultimately mark its success. As craft beer gains popularity, and consumer tastes become more refined, drinkers are spurning Big Beer’s seductive commercials, exotic flavour additives, and fancy cans that change colour, in favour of artisanal products.
It goes without a doubt that handpicked, organic, local and indigenous hops communicate the quality that is found in craft beer. That, coupled with a great-tasting beer, are the ingredients of good branding.