P.E.I.'s 'bushwacking' researchers have high hopes for hops

Wednesday, 11 October 2017, 01:37:35 PM. Researchers from Agriculture Canada have collected more than 50 varieties of wild hops from across the Maritimes. Now they're putting them under the microscope to find which ones will make the best brew.

Researchers from Agriculture Canada have collected more than 50 varieties of wild hops from across the Maritimes. Now they're putting them under the microscope to find which ones will make the best brew.

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The team put out the call more than two years ago and the response was overwhelming.

"We had so many people contact us, it was really crazy actually," said Jason McCallum, a phytochemist with Agriculture Canada.

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The wild hops have some different characteristics from the hops that are currently grown commercially. (Submitted by Agriculture Canada)

"We ended up with about 50 different places that we sampled for our collection but we could have probably hit 100 if we'd had the time to do it."

'An adventure'

McCallum and colleague Aaron Mills hit the road, travelling to locations around the region, from Edmundston, N.B., to Cape Breton, to the western end of P.E.I.

"We were bushwhacking, we were basically wearing hip waders, going through creeks, climbing up tree trunks trying to get samples and it was an adventure," he said.

They also soon learned the hops often came with a story, about a long-deserted family farm, or hops brought over by Acadian settlers.

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Aaron Mills (left) and Jason McCallum travelled to some remote locations across the Maritimes collecting samples of wild hops. (Submitted by Agriculture Canada)

"We talked to this one old fellow, and he was 90, living in this little old farmhouse all by himself over in Cape Breton,"  McCallum said. 

"His grandmother or great grandmother was an herbalist, the local healer for the community and there are these hops that are still growing there."

Propagating plants

Once the samples were back in the lab on P.E.I., the scientists set out to grow them.

"When we were in the field, we dug up part of the root system," McCallum explained.

"We brought those back to our lab and when we plant those in a pot, the plant will send up new shoots."

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The researchers grow new shoots from the rhizomes they collected in the field and then propagate more plants to put in the hopyard. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Some have already been planted in the Agriculture Canada hopyard to see how they will do growing in a high density.

"We've taken these things from the wild where they were growing without any human intervention, there was no pesticides, no fertilizer, " McCallum said.

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The researchers will use genetic and chemical testing plus looking at the morphology of the plants to try to figure out where they are from. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

The results, so far, have been mixed.

"Some of them are definitely very heavy yielders already and that's attractive from a production standpoint. Some of them are real dogs, they barely grow at all," he said.

'It's a little bit of a mystery there as to why some took so well and some didn't.' - Jason McCallum

"It's a little bit of a mystery there as to why some took so well and some didn't."

The research team is still trying to find out the exact origin of the hops, through genetic and chemical tests.

McCallum estimates that one quarter are wild species from North America, another quarter are clearly European and the remaining 50 per cent, they are still not sure.

He's also excited about some of the results he's seeing so far.

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Some of the hops grown in the Agriculture Canada hopyard this summer. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"There are some seemingly new chemicals in these hops so there is the whole mystery and puzzle of figuring out what these things are."

Researcher Spencer Gallant, a part-time brewer at the P.E.I. Brewing Company and master's student at UPEI, said he's looking forward to trying some of the hops the team has gathered.

"That's one of the end goals for sure, I'd love to be able to analyze some of the aromas and flavours we get by actually replicating a brew in a smaller size," Gallant said.

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Spencer Gallant, a master's student at UPEI and part-time brewer, is looking forward to trying some of the hops. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

But the researchers said a definitive recommendation on the best hops is still a few summer growing seasons away.

"It was really a fantastic opportunity to get out of the lab, get out there into the field, people were very enthusiastic and friendly with us," McCallum said.

"It's a highlight of my career so far."

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