When an average Canadian beer-drinker hoists a pint at their local pub, they likely give little thought to where the ingredients come from. That's something Michael Clark and Luke Pestl, co-founders of Toronto's Bellwoods Brewery, are hoping to change.
Mr. Clark and Mr. Pestl launched their City Hops project this summer, an experiment in growing hops in eight different locations in downtown Toronto (hops are flowering plants that are used as flavouring agents in the production of beer). It's the beginning stages of an initiative to create specialty craft beer made from local ingredients grown in the city, while creating partnerships with local businesses.
"I love the idea of taking underutilized space and extracting some sort of benefit from it," says Mr. Clark. "And there's a face on it, a connection to the people [who]made the beer and where the ingredients might have come from."
This spring, hops were planted on the property of businesses such as I deal Coffee and restaurant/bar Parts & Labour (both located in the west end of downtown Toronto), a handful of residential backyard gardens and Wychwood Barns, a park and community hub. Katie Mathieu tended to the hops at Parts & Labour – she runs a planter garden project on the building's rooftop, growing vegetables and herbs for use in the restaurant. Ms. Mathieu says the hops thrived in planters on the roof.
"We've got potting soil that's enriched with mycelial culture and compost, and they're really comfortable," she says. "They predicted eight to 10 feet (three metres)... and these are 20 feet (six metres)."
It's the kind of urban gardening that's flourishing across North America, as forward-thinking businesses take advantage of unused urban spaces to make an environmental impact. Joe Nasr, a professor of urban agriculture at Ryerson University in Toronto, cites companies such as Lufa Farms in Montreal, Gotham Greens in New York City and Fresh City Farms in Toronto – businesses that are attempting to change the way city dwellers get their food.
Lufa Farms grows vegetables and herbs on 30,000 square feet (almost 2800 square metres) of greenhouse space on the rooftop of a Montreal office building, packaging their yield into baskets available for purchase. Gotham Greens grows specialty greens such as swiss chard, arugula and bok choy in a rooftop greenhouse in Brooklyn, which they sell to restaurants and markets in the city.
And while the benefits of growing food in urban spaces are considerable from an environmental standpoint, it can also benefit companies financially, says Mr. Nasr. Companies can get their produce to consumers with minimal transportation costs (and for companies using greenhouses, food can be produced year-round).
"A tomato typically [takes]three weeks from the time it's picked to when you buy it at the supermarket," says Mr. Nasr. "With a Lufa Farms basket, you'll get that tomato the same day it's picked. The elimination of the middleman has a number of benefits and many of them are financial."
Toronto's Fresh City Farms, which launched this year, recruits "member farmers" – typically students looking for summer jobs – and trains them in organic farming techniques at their home base, a one-acre farm and greenhouse at Downsview Park. The member farmers then go out and find urban spaces to farm, most often residential backyards. Fresh City Farms then amalgamates everyone's produce and sells it in the form of veggie and fruit boxes delivered across the city. Co-founder Ran Goel says he believes their model can be a profitable one.
"We believe so, and we're testing the model right now," he says. "We're really creating a co-op model for urban farming, which has never been done on a city level, as far as we know."
Mr. Goel says they hope to work with local businesses to add other products to their vegetable and fruit boxes, such as local wine, tofu and other organic products, in order to offer more value for their customers.
He also says they hope to eventually expand the model to other cities like Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary.
"Lots of people are interested in organic local food, and lots of young people are interested in doing meaningful work, and we're just hoping to help the two meet," he says.
Mr. Clark and his Bellwoods Brewery team are just finishing up their first city hops harvest. The hops flowers will be dried, vacuum-packed and frozen this fall for future use (Mr. Clark and Mr. Pestl are currently setting up the brewery in a downtown former auto shop).
Although the majority of the brewery's output in the coming year will be made from standard farm-grown hops, Mr. Clark and Mr. Pestl plan to utilize the city hops they grew this summer for specialty casks, and have found more locations (including Toronto's Brickworks) in order to expand the project next summer. They even have ambitions to create a "100 Mile Ale," in which all the beer's ingredients are grown within a 100-mile radius.
"Even if the city hops program isn't a colossal money-maker, there's a tangible benefit to the greening of space and having it produce something that connects people to that space," says Mr. Clark.