Originally in Harrowsmith Magazine Spring 2019
Alcoholic beverages have likely been part of human culture for as long as there have been humans. No doubt early humans hunted and gathered naturally fermented wild honey or fruit juices that tasted good and gave them a nice buzz. But the leap from that to making beer required something a little more advanced: farming.
After the last ice age ended about 12,000 years ago, humans began settling down and domesticating plants and animals, particularly cereal grains. Some historians even theorize humans first began farming so they could make beer (and bread) on a more regular basis. Farming and brewing have been intertwined ever since, but over the centuries, and especially since the Industrial Revolution, breweries have largely lost their direct connection with farms, instead purchasing the ingredients they need from large-scale distributors.
However, one of the main themes of the craft beer renaissance that has taken place since the 1980s has been the desire among brewers to work more closely with local agricultural producers to obtain the ingredients for their beers: malted grains, hops, fruits and other fermentables.
That connection between craft beer and farming is well established in British Columbia, where there are three farm-based breweries, along with two other breweries that use organic ingredients exclusively.
Crannóg Ales is a brewery based on a 10-acre organic farm in Sorrento, about halfway between Kamloops and Salmon Arm, just off the Trans-Canada Highway. Founders Rebecca Kneen and Brian McIsaac left the big-city bustle of Vancouver behind to build this unique farm-brewery in 2000, and helped reintroduce hop growing to the province through a manual that Kneen produced and distributed. In addition to growing their own hops, they raise pigs and sheep for meat and wool, and keep laying chickens for eggs. They grow fruits and vegetables and sell their products at local farmers’ markets. Crannóg’s beer is sustainably produced in small batches and mostly sold wholesale to restaurants and pubs. Tours are available by appointment on Fridays and Saturdays during the summer only.
On the Sunshine Coast, Persephone Brewing opened in 2013 in the town of Gibsons, on what was previously a flower farm. Known as the Beer Farm, Persephone grows its own hops and cider apples on the farm, along with fruits and vegetables. Although not officially organic, the 11-acre farm uses organic practices and is a certified B-Corporation that has won several awards for its beers as well as for its environmental and community stewardship programs. The farm has a tasting room open six days a week year-round, and Persephone’s beer is packaged and distributed throughout the province.
The Beer Farmers, also known as Pemberton Valley Beer Works, is an organic farm-based brewery in Pemberton, about 45 minutes north of Whistler. What sets this place apart from the others is that in addition to hops, it is also growing its own barley, which is custom-malted off-site and then used in a variety of “farmhouse beers” designed to show off the regional terroir of the local ingredients first and foremost. The recipes change with the seasons, incorporating fresh hops in the early autumn and other ingredients grown on the farm or nearby at other times of the year.
Crannóg and Persephone faced a threat to their existence in recent years when the Provincial Agricultural Land Commission questioned their status as farm-based breweries because they weren’t growing their own barley, which requires a much larger footprint than either operation has. Fortunately, the government agreed to change the rules to reflect a comparable exemption afforded to B.C. wineries, which can be farm based even if they don’t grow their own grapes, as long as they buy grapes from farms in B.C.
Beyond these farm-based breweries, there are two other B.C. breweries that use only organic ingredients: Nelson Brewing and Vancouver’s Dogwood Brewing. Many others work closely with local agriculture producers and seek out hops grown in British Columbia as much as possible.
The BC Ale Trail
The BC Ale Trail is the ideal way to plan a trip to visit these farm-based breweries and taste their beers in person. Using the motto “Arrive Thirsty, Leave Inspired,” this website was launched in 2016 as a tool for craft beer lovers to learn more about British Columbia’s diverse and delicious craft breweries. It breaks the province down into 17 different regional Ale Trails, highlighting the breweries in each region, along with restaurants, accommodation options and other local activities. Crannóg Ales is part of the Kamloops-Shuswap-Vernon Ale Trail, which launched in 2018, while Persephone Brewing is located on the Sunshine Coast Ale Trail. The Beer Farmers have not yet been officially added to the BC Ale Trail, but hopefully Pemberton will be part of it soon, too. For now, check out the Whistler Ale Trail and plan an excursion to Pemberton from there.
Fresh Hop Beer
One of the most sought-after seasonal beer styles each year is fresh hop (or wet hop) beer. Usually, hops are harvested and then immediately dried to avoid spoilage. Once processed into pellets, they can be kept in cold storage for a year or more. But fresh hop beers are brewed with hops fresh from the harvest, ideally within 24 hours of having been picked, so that uniquely fresh, grassy, green flavours will show up prominently in the beer. Fresh hop beers are prized for their terroir—what the hops from a specific place and time taste like. These beers are generally only available for a few weeks each fall starting in late September or early October.
In British Columbia, Victoria’s Driftwood Brewery kicked off the fresh hop craze in 2008 when it released Sartori Harvest IPA, which was brewed with hops freshly harvested at the Sartori Hop Farm in Chilliwack. Over the ensuing years, Driftwood has returned to the Sartori farm annually, and many other breweries have followed their lead, working with local farms or sometimes even crowdsourcing fresh hops from the community (i.e., folks who grow their own in their backyards). Two separate fresh hop beer festivals take place in the Fraser Valley and Victoria each fall.
Malt Your Own
The story behind Victoria’s Phillips Brewing & Distilling’s origin is famous. Legend goes that when the banks all turned down Matt Phillips’s loan requests, he was undeterred and simply maxed out every credit card he could get his hands on to start his own brewery back in 2001. Today, the brewery is the biggest, most successful craft brewery in British Columbia, if not all of Canada.A few years ago, Phillips applied that same do-it-yourself approach to malting barley by building his own malting facility at his downtown brewery and working with farmers on Vancouver Island and elsewhere in B.C. to grow barley to supply the brewery’s needs. It’s proven to be a great success, as Phillips Brewing & Distilling uses its own malted barley in many of its beers, as well as in some of its distilled products.
Joe Wiebe, the “Thirsty Writer,” is the author of Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries (Douglas & McIntyre) and a co-founder of Victoria Beer Week and the BC Ale Trail. He lives in Victoria, BC, where he is the beer columnist for CBC Radio’s All Points West.
In 2007, Jules Torti, Harrowsmith’s editor-in-chief, was a student in Wiebe’s “Writing for Magazines” class at Douglas College in New Westminster, BC. She passed with flying colours.