Local farms, brewers hopping into partnership

Hops crops harvested thanks to new machine, handed off to area brewers

The Emo Agricultural Research Station (EARS) was abuzz in mid-September when area MPP and Minister of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry as well as Lisa Thompson, MPP for Huron Bruce and Minister of Agriculture, food and Rural Affairs were in the District for a visit. During their visit they got a demonstration of the new hops harvesting machine.

Over the weeks since, EARS manager Kim Jo Bliss has been working to get the hops harvested and dried.

It wasn’t a great year for hops, Bliss says. The drought in the region kept the crop from growing as well as it could have.

“The hops did ok, it wasn’t their best year,” Bliss said. “We watered the hops three times a week, but on a year like we had with this drought we should have been probably watering them every day, but we just can’t do that, we don’t have the manpower, so we settled on three days a week and they did ok.”

Josh Manzie, brewer at Lake of the Woods Brewery in Kenora (left), Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford and Huron-Bruce MPP and Agriculture Minister Lisa Thompson show off a locally made beer near the district’s hops harvester after receiving a demonstration on Sep. 16, 2021. Local beer will soon be hopping with local flavour. -Allan Bradbury photo

Bliss says the plants take some work in the spring, training the vines onto the lines they grow on and getting them to grow the right way but the harvest has been very exciting.

Now dried and baled, the hops will go to Lake of the Woods Brewing Company in Kenora to be used in beers. The partnership with the brewery is one of the reasons the hops experiment started at EARS.

Geoff Gillon, Executive Director of Rainy River Future Development Corporation (RRFDC), says the idea started when the brewery brought up the idea of having local hops to use in their brewing.

“We talked to Taras (Manzie, owner) at Lake of the Woods and he expressed an interest in acquiring local hops, so he could make a local Northwest Ontario beer,” Gillon said. “So in partnership with Kim Jo at the Ag Station, we decided to put in a hops yard back there.”

With the funding it receives from area communities, RRFDC paid for most of the setup of the hops yard at EARS in 2019.

After that season, Lake of the Woods made a wet hops beer, meaning the hops weren’t dried before brewing.

Due to the downturn in the economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a writeoff year for the project.

This year, however, the RRFDC, with help of a grant from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC) was able to purchase the harvester which makes life much easier on the growers.

“We did our whole yard and had it all done, dried and in our oven and ready to go to a brewery in less time than we probably did like four plants when we were picking by hand,” Bliss said. “We probably ended up with close to 450 wet pounds.”

Besides, EARS, local producers Cornell Farms and Chris Rittau were also able to take advantage of the hops harvester.

Gillon says the craft beer industry has been growing in the area and hops can be a good alternate source of income for people growing it and selling to local brewers.

Josh Manzie is a brewer at Lake of the Woods.

Manzie says because hops usually start to mold after just 24 hours, time is limited unless you can dry it out. At EARS they have an oven that is used for drying products like hops and tobacco.

“What’s really great is with this harvester and the drying machine and being able to bail it, we’re gonna be able to use it all year around so that changes things, so it’s absolutely wonderful,” Manzie said.

In the future Lake of the Woods is hoping to be able to give back to the farming community as well in the form of the used grain from the brewing process. The brewery wants to get equipment that will enable it to dry the grain out so it can be sold back to cattle farmers as feed.

“It’s important for all of us to pull together,” Manzie said. “I mean, what could be better than using local hops, local grain and getting that grain back to cattle farmers?”