On the hillside above Chris Sartori's farmhouse is a strange sight. Rows of leafy vines rise from the rolling ranchland, stretching 18 feet high to the top of a cable system that holds them in aV shape. A soft breeze sets the vines swaying, as warm sunlight flickers on the grass below. This morning, Sartori is checking his crop at the Sartori Cedar Ranch. While some of the vines are still in flower, others already bear the small cones that will be harvested in early September. He crushes the green fruit in his hands and inhales. It doesn't smell like beer. Sartori is one of a handful of B.C. hop farmers producing the prized cones that give beer its bitterness, as well as aroma and flavour. With several thousand plants and a guaranteed buyer in Molson Coors, Sartori is at the forefront of what could be a resurgence of local hops.
"Look at this," says Sartori, sweeping his arm to indicate his hop fields, set against a forested mountainside in Columbia Valley. "If people could see this they would be inspired." Sartori's hops are nothing if not inspired. The venture is influenced by more than a century of history: While an unfamiliar sight in today's agricultural landscape, hops were once a dominant crop in the Fraser Valley. In the 1940s, B.C. was home to the largest hop-growing area in the British Commonwealth, according to Ron Denman, director of the Chilliwack Museum and Archives. "The harvest was a ritual for thousands of people," he said. Families would come to Chilliwack at the end of August and pick through September, sleeping in the fields. Eventually, lower costs in the U.S. drove operations south, and the last hop fields were uprooted and sold in 1997.
Sartori, a German immigrant, planted his first hops about six years ago, hoping there might be a market for local cones. His timing proved inspired. While the hops were maturing, Steve Stradiotto, the director of brewing at Molson Coors, was digging through the Molson family archives in Ottawa searching for the original Molson Export recipe with a plan to recreate the iconic brew. In an old recipe book from 1908, he found what he was looking for. But instead of listing hop varietals, the recipe named growing regions. "I was surprised. The recipe calls for 'B.C. hops,'" Stradiotto said. There were a few small ventures in B.C. at the time, but it wasn't until he met Sartori that he knew he'd found right farmer. Several seasons later, "the hops are fantastic," said Stradiotto.
Sartori's hops are also having a big impact on B.C.'s booming craft beer industry. The world's oldest beverage has proven itself remarkably adaptable, and brewmasters have tapped into the local food movement to create buzz. "There's more craft brewers in B.C. now than there has been at any other time," beer educator Ken Beattie said.
The executive director of the B.C. craft brewers guild estimates the number of brewers and brew pubs in the province has more than doubled in five years, from about 35 in 2007 to more than 60 by the end of 2013. According to Province beer blogger Jan Zeschky, beer made from fresh Sartori hops has become one of B.C.'s most anticipated smallbatch beers.
Each fall, Victoria's Driftwood Brewery produces a limited amount of "wet-hopped" beer using fresh hops from Sartori's farm. Hops are usually dried and frozen to ensure a yearlong supply between harvests, but to make his beer, Driftwood brewer Jason Meyer travels to Chilliwack to buy them fresh, then races back to Vancouver Island to brew his Sartori Harvest IPA. Consumers line up outside stores to buy the beer, which in the words of the brewer, "tastes like the Columbia Valley." More than anything, Sartori's hops are themselves inspired-by the earth, the water and the air. Terroir-a familiar concept in the wine world that is used to denote the place that gives wine its distinct flavour-can also apply to beer, said Beattie.
The world's best hops-in the U.S. and Europe-are all grown near the 49th parallel. Sartori's farm, which sits a stone's throw from the U.S. border, may not boast the flat, square fields that characterize most of Chilliwack's farmland, but it has something that may be better. It inspires
Ward Perrin, PNG / Chris Sartori checks on the hops plants growing on his Chilliwack-area farm. Sartori grows a few different varieties and has found local micro breweries like his hops.;
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