Woman hopping to the challenge

Crop grower targets hobby beer market


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RM OF ROSSER -- True or False?

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/08/2011 (4017 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

RM OF ROSSER — True or False?

Crops called hops are small and spring up suddenly like Poppin Hoppies, a short-lived game introduced in the 1970s.

Most readers probably passed that test as hops are more like the basketball players of crops: they grow up to 25 feet long.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sandra Gowan grows about 60 hops plants for the hobby beer market in Manitoba.

It’s also like the Norm from Cheers (George Wendt, currently starring in Hairspray at Rainbow Stage) of crops: it lives for beer. In Germany, where beer-making is taken pretty seriously, a law dating back to the 1500s makes it illegal to make beer without hops.

Until recently, the only hops in Manitoba was a native, leafy vine that grows along the banks of our muddy prairie rivers. They could be hard to find if amateur beer crafters got there first. (Actually, our wild hops is one of the parents of popular commercial hops variety, Brewers Gold.)

But some growers, like Sandra Gowan, have taken up the challenge. She grows about 60 hops plants for the hobby beer market. Gowan, who worked nearly three decades in the grain research laboratory of the Canadian Grain Commission, likes the challenge of growing something new.


Gowan was introduced to the crop with the odd name — hops is short for humulus lupulus — through Brian Hunt, Manitoba Agriculture crop specialist, who began experimenting with growing the crop in 2008. Hunt wanted to see if hops, a perennial plant grown commercially in British Columbia, Oregon, and the state of Washington, could withstand Manitoba winters. It did. A plant takes two to three years to bear fruit and will last 25 years, said Hunt.

Its fruit are green, cone-like flowers. In the expression “yeast, hops and grapes,” grapes are for making wine, while yeast and hops are for making beer. Hops is a natural fungicide and bactericide. It gives beer aroma, flavour, and bitterness (to balance the sweetness of the malt barley), and acts as a preservative, having an antibiotic, neutralizing effect against the brewer’s yeast.

Gowan runs a cable across the top of 12-foot-high poles, and fastens binder twine from the cable to the ground to give the hops something to climb. The plants wind around the binder twine like a spiral-ringed binder as she gets them started.

The towering hops plants climb 12 feet to the cable, and then start to grow down the same way they came. “It grows like quack grass” — up to a foot a day in its prime growth period, said Gowan.

To harvest, the plant is cut at the top, from a step ladder, and at the bottom.

But you could think hops are small judging from how little goes into a five-gallon batch of beer — just one to two ounces. About 32 ounces of hops are produced from a single plant.

While it’s now proven that commercial hops can grow in Manitoba, the yields don’t stack up to those of crops grown on the west coast. Another problem is there are few microbreweries in Manitoba to buy product. More could start up after the province recently changed the law to allow microbreweries to sell beer for consumption off the premises, and not just for consumption within a lounge or restaurant.

Gowan has opted for supplying the hobby beer-making market. She grows 12 different varieties and is adding four more next year.

Her father, Art Morrison, is developing a hydraulic system to package her hops into freeze-dried “pucks” to use in beer production. Her hops are sold through Grape & Grain on Osborne Street, where people can choose their own hops instead of using kits, and her website, www.seedstoblooms.com. She also sells rhizomes, the root stock, to grow your own hops.


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