In a blink-and-you-miss-it hamlet an hour’s drive from Edmonton, two sisters with a passion for hops are on a noble quest.
Darwell, AB, is world famous in some circles for its agricultural fair which has been held in the settlement for almost as long as Alberta has been Alberta. It’s also home to Northern Girls Hops, which is putting Darwell on the map for another reason; it is Alberta’s only hopyard, and the northern-most hopyard on the continent.
It’s run by sisters Catherine Smith and Karin Smith Fargey. Their’s is a small hopyard, but they have big ambitions. One day, just maybe, if they have their way, Alberta’s breweries and home brewers will be making beer with a species they will call the Darwell hop, a special strain they know will adapt from existing species of humulus lupulus and thrive in Alberta’s unique climate.
The Daily Beer caught up with Catherine Smith earlier this week to talk about growing hops in our finicky climate, and to get some tips about how the amateur brewer or gardener can grow hops successfully in their own yards (you can read our Top 5 Tips for Growing Hops at Home for practical tips on how to choose the right hops and right location to plant them).
It’s a busy time for the sisters; orders have just opened this week for spring deliveries (see details at the bottom of this page for how to order), which means that it won’t be too long until they start digging up hop rhizomes to ship out to customers. For the uninitiated, rhizomes are sections of the root of the hop plant that are cut up and replanted to grow a new plant.
Northern Girls have a great story. Back in 2010, the sisters were looking for inspiration about what to plant on a patch of land they had bought in Darwell. Smith Fargey’s son Ben had recently been in the Gatineau region in Quebec, where hops grow in abundance, and suggested trying them out. After planting some fruit trees first, they planted their first hops in 2013 and now have four varieties for sale to the public; Cascade, Centennial, Golding and Sterling. Their hopyard is 0.7 acres right now, but they will more than double its size this year to 2 acres.
Even their name has a good story. The sisters themselves aren’t the northern girls; “Northern” is because they are the northernmost hopyard on the continent, and “Girls” is for the gender of hops that produces hop cones (those lazy man hops do nothing but take up space …).
Smith and her sister trial new varieties every year. Before the new species enter the hopyard however, they go through a quarantine period at a location away from the hopyard to ensure no diseases are introduced. That, says Smith, would be catastrophic. “We want to protect Alberta’s future hop industry. One disease can completely ruin a hop yard. We quarantine all rhizomes and plans for a full year before moving them to the hopyard and planting them.”
Last year they tried six additional varieties that mature early; Mt. Hood, Hallertau, Saaz, Tettnanger, Challenger and Chrystal. Because Alberta has such a short growing season, it’s important to pick early or early-mid maturing varieties. Hops need a certain amount of sun to trigger cone growth. It’s a tight race to beat the first fall frost, which can knock buds dead.
If the new varieties take well to local conditions, they are likely to be on sale next year – but that is a big “if”.
Finding the ideal hop varieties to grow in Alberta remains an ongoing endeavour, says Smith. “This is a main research area for us, and a research area for the hops industry as it grows in Alberta. It’s still empirical for us – we just don’t know (what the ideal hop is). It’s going to be ‘find out and see’ for us in Alberta on what works well.”
After three years, they are starting to get a better sense of what hops are working well and what is not. “Early data for us shows that Centennial is really good. We’ve seen that now for three years. It’s a beautiful hop for Alberta. Golding is another one, and does really well around the Edmonton area. The Calgary area is slightly different due to its lower latitude – Cascade does grow in the Edmonton area, but is right on the cusp. In Calgary though, it might be perfect for home growers.” (Note: We have hops growing at Daily Beer HQ and can confirm that Centennial is by far the strongest, healthiest and most prolific of the varieties we have.)
That’s not to say you can’t grow Cascade in northern parts of the province. Alley Kat Brewing in Edmonton used Northern Girls’ Cascade and Centennial cones plucked from their Darwell hopyard in their Alberta Dragon Double IPA last year, which used only Alberta ingredients (it has a 3.7/5 score on Untappd).
Hearing Smith talk about hops and their potential in Alberta, you can’t help but share her passion and excitement. Even though the industry is so young here, Smith is excited to see how specific varieties adjust – and morph – to meet Alberta’s growing condition. The same hops in two very different locations can take on their own nuances and flavours.
“Cultivars can become specific to a certain terroir. That’s what we are looking at here at Northern Girls. It’s completely analogous to wine varieties – in parts of north-western Spain there have been cabernet sauvignon grapes that have developed so closely to that particular area that its now recognized as its own variety. This is going to happen in hops.”
“We are going to have the Alberta Cascade. And we will have a hop that is totally unique. We’re going to have the Darwell hop eventually,” she laughs.
Open for orders
Northern Girls opened up their online shop for orders this week. You can choose to buy rhizones – these are sections of root from established hop plants that you throw in the ground and cover with dirt – for $6.50 each or their “hops in a box” – which contain a small plant, a pot, soil and twine; basically all that you need to start growing your own hop jungle at home – for $15.00. Delivery takes place before the spring planting season.