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A farmer sorts through freshly picked hop cones at Pleasant Valley Hops in Ontario's Prince Edward County.

Brian Meech

On the site of a 200-year-old lighthouse on New Brunswick’s Grand Manan island, behind the crumbling foundation, hop grower Josh Mayich found what he was looking for. “I smelled them and realized they were Goldings hops,” he says. “The lighthouse keeper brought them over from Britain in the 18th century to add to the beer he brewed.”

Back then if you wanted hops in your beer, you grew them yourself. Today, the hop industry is mostly dominated by American varietals grown in Washington State, but this is starting to change.

The boom in the craft beer industry has been very good for hops grown on Canadian soil. Responsible for the bitterness of your favourite IPA, or the earthy notes in an English ale, different strains of hops are a key ingredient for brewers experimenting with flavour. Sensory experiments are starting to show that hops grown in Canada’s different climatic regions might have a unique terroir that can be used to brand Canadian-grown hops as premium ingredients for the best beers.

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The difficulty is that terroir effects tend to be subtle and difficult to pin down. “We needed to figure out the methodology, especially on the sensory side,” says Dirk Bendiak from Ontario Craft Brewers (OCB). So recently, the OCB joined forces with the Ontario Hop Growers’ Association (OHGA) to see if hops grown at different farms around the province had distinct tastes. They brought on Mirella Amato, a Toronto-based craft beer and sensory consultant, who is one of only 18 master cicerones in the world. “Hops are still under-researched and the vocabulary for describing hops isn’t completely there,” she says. With a standard set of words used to describe taste, brewers could market their beers as brewed with particular hops, much like how wines are defined by their grape varietal.

The team decided to grow IPA-style Cascade hops and Centennial hops at different locations around Ontario and compare them to the standard version grown in their native United States. Amato assembled a panel of cicerones, brewers, scientists and chefs to give their feedback on the “aroma profile” of the hops after being sent through a coffee grinder, followed some weeks later by a taste test of beers brewed with the same hops.

They then tried to match the flavours to the presence of specific compounds through laboratory testing. “It’s where the science and the art meet,” Chris Gillis says of the Centre for Craft Brewing Innovation at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont., where the hops were analyzed and the beer was brewed. “Just like a professional chef wants to understand the nature of their ingredients,” he says, “a deeper and better understanding of those flavour notes would help brewers make more interesting beer.”

Grower Edgar Ramirez of Pleasant Valley Hops.

The sensory panel determined that the Ontario grown hops retained their characteristic citrus notes, but also found some differences. “The Ontario hops tended to have less of a spicy, black pepper character. They also tended to have more tree fruit leaning toward apple and less tropical notes,” Amato says. Once the hops were brewed into the beer, the majority of the sensory panel were also able to clearly distinguish the hops grown in the United States from the hops grown in Ontario.

In the Maritimes, hop grower Mayich advocates a “mature, scientific approach” to pin down the elusive terroir of Canadian hops. “Hops is a generational pursuit,” he says. At his own research farm in New Brunswick, Mayich started years ago with 17 different strains of hops sourced from all over the world. He bred them and tested everything from their productivity to their chemical composition. He whittled his list down to nine different hops that he will be growing on a new 50-acre farm on Prince Edward Island.

“We’ve been at this for seven years now and we’re just getting to be able to look at the minute terroir differences,” he says. As an example, he points me to the Fixed Link Maritime Pilsner brewed by Loan Oak in Borden-Carleton, PEI with malt from PEI and hops from Mayich’s yard. “It uses one of our noble hops that has some slight notes of red berry [strawberry, raspberry], which is not appropriate in a German pilsner, but whatever a maritime pilsner is, it’s appropriate in that.”

Nearby in Antigonish, N.S., Matthew Schumacher is combining his expertise in geology with a passion for home-brewing in a PhD on hop terroir at Saint Francis Xavier University. “I’m interested in how the maritime climate affects the quality of the hops,” he says. Different farms in different microclimates will grow the same hops and then Schumacher will examine them back at the lab. The sensory evaluation of hops focuses on what we taste or smell, “but I’m trying to understand why we get these taste differences,” he says.

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Schumacher explains that the oils in hops are responsible for the complex flavour of your favourite beers, adding notes such as grapefruit, coffee or vanilla. The “alpha-beta acids” are what add bitterness. With a weather station at each site, Schumacher says he hopes to be able to “correlate environmental variables to the oil profiles found in the hops.”

Through projects such as these, brewers and growers are hopeful that one day Canadian hops will be considered some of the best in the world based on their unique terroir. This, according to Bendiak, “just makes better beer for everyone.”

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Loan Oak brewery is in Charlottetown, it is actually located in Borden-Carleton, PEI.
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