Today’s hops, tomorrow’s brew: First major hops harvest underway at NOTL Campus

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Brewmaster professor Jon Downing and students participate in the hops harvest.

It’s harvest time at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus – but the activity extends well beyond the vineyards.

On September 12, the College kicked off its hop harvest – the first major harvest since the hop yard was planted in 2014.

The College’s two-acre hop yard features 12 varieties which, like grapes for wine, will be used to produce various styles of beer at the NC Teaching Brewery.The NC Teaching Winery will also experiment with incorporating the hops into a dry-hopped cider. Excess hops will be sold to commercial partners.

This year’s abundance of rain was welcome after last year’s drought produced unfavourable conditions for the young plants. Hop plants rely on moisture and nitrogen to grow, noted NC winemaker Gavin Robertson, who has been involved with the hops yard, along with contract grower Roger Vail. Vail, who is a part-time instructor with the Winery and Viticulture program, is behind Vineland-based Vailmont Vineyards Ltd which provides services from design to planting and harvesting grapes, as well as full development and care of hop yards in the Niagara area. His expertise in hops production has been in increased demand in recent years.

“This area used to be noted for hop production back before prohibition. With the resurgence of the craft brewing industry, it’s now coming back … and it’s exploding,” said Vail.

Vail, along with staff from the winery and staff and students from the NC Teaching Brewery participated in the 2017 harvest which involved picking hops from the rows of plants in the hop yards. Specialized machinery was used to separate the cones from the bines, before the cones are kiln-dried, then either vacuum sealed or made into pellets to preserve their quality over the next year or longer.

A growing demand for hops in the area is accompanied by an increasing thirst for knowledge when it comes to hops production. Vail is working with the College’s Research & Innovation division to study hops production and provide solutions for the industry.

Research lab technologist Kelly Byer noted that the project with NC Research & Innovation will provide Vailmont, and the sector as a whole, with a better understanding of the harvesting window for different hops varieties, allowing a more efficient harvest and a better end-product.

“Brewers look for different flavour profiles in hops, including the amounts of alpha and beta acids, depending on the style of beer they are making. As hops is a relatively new crop in the province, growers need information on how different varieties perform, and when the optimal harvest time is to maximize the flavour compounds and their potential revenue from the crop,” said Byer. “This project will be looking into these factors, for the benefit of both hops growers and craft brewers.”

Research lab technologist Kelly Byer shows students around the College hop yard during the harvest.

Brewmaster professor Jon Downing and students arrive to pick hops for harvest.

Students hop to the task of picking, making their way down rows of plants for the College’s 2017 harvest.

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