Club: Whole Hop Brew Exchange (Red Deer Brewers, AB)

It was a chilly October day when I pulled into your typical farm yard. There was a dog running around and tractors strewn about the property. But, at the back of the property is a large red shed, a building most person wouldn’t normally associate with beer. But this place was different. This unseeming farm shed held more than just tractors—it also held the equipment to turned normal everyday barley into glorious malt. Yes! Malt. The stuff of legends and one of the base components for beer. It was also the home of Red Shed Malting just outside of Penhold, AB. Matt and Joe Hamill not only run the malthouse, but seed, till the land and harvest the barley that we all covet to make beer. They are a testament to hard work, dedication, and innovation. If you ever get a chance to use their malt, definitely give it a go—you won’t be disappointed.

           That day, I wasn’t there to view the malt or the process. I was there to drink some beer and taste the spoils that six different hombrewers had created with a twist. You see, these homebrewers were used to sourcing their ingredients from your typical homebrew shop, but these beers were different. In all the beers that I was about to taste, all of the hops used were sourced from local hop farms in the area. The hops were picked, and used—wet, or dried—with some used within 12 hours of being picked.

            This whole fresh hop idea was the brainchild of Lucky Lion Brewing. He had been curious as to why some of his beers had grassy notes and others didn’t. He had narrowed it down to the quality and age of the hops potentially, but he had no way to test this theory—until now.

Hop yards have started popping up in the Central Alberta area over the last few years, and a few of them had three year old plants this year. After a trip out to one of the hop yards, Lucky Lion came up with a crazy group experiment that ended up becoming this beer exchange.

            All of the beers tasted that day were made with fresh hops. Picked off the vine and made into a beer within a day or two of picking. Some of the brewers used the hops fresh, but most dried the hops first and then added them to the boil in whole cone form.

            One of the common difficulties that many of the brewers voiced when the bottles were being passed around to taste was the fact that they had to guess at the Alpha and Beta Acid percentages. As many of you would know, this percentage helps to gauge the bittering aspect of the hops and other flavour profiles. It may have been an issue on brew day, but at the exchange, Hard Hels Hops brought along their test results from the lab so that all the brewers could see what the percentages actually were. While most of the brewers guessed right when making their beer, what really stood out was that these hops grown in our own backyard were the same quality as those grown around the world. For a climate that can be as cold and unforgiving as Central Alberta, this was amazing news!

Dried whole hops. Photo courtesy of Ben Smithson.

            Typically, the Red Deer Brewers would (in a pre-COVID world) have three to five beer exchanges a year. Someone would come up with an idea for a beer or theme and anyone who wanted to brew to that style or theme would be more than welcome to sign up. Once the beer was brewed, enough beer would be bottled so that everyone in the group would get a bottle to sample. We would arrange a drop off point or day usually at someone’s house and sort the beer for each person and hand it back out. One of the members would usually makes a thread on Facebook on the group page with a line for each beer. The members participating in the exchange are encouraged to write a review of the beer under its line. This constructive criticism has made most of us that are part of the exchange better brewers through sharing our mistakes and getting help from those who have already made those mistakes before.

Beers at the exchange. Photo courtesy of Ben Smithson.

            This exchange was much the same. The only difference was that we also wanted to share these beers that were made with the hop farms that supplied the hops to the brewers.

            There were four hop farms in the Central Alberta area that participated in this exchange, they were Hoptomystic, Hard Hels Hops, Hop To It, and Underground Hops. These four budding hop farms had quite the range of hops for the brewers to choose from. Some of the hop varieties available were Triple Perle, Fuggle, Centennial, Cashmere, Cascade, Bitter Gold, Chinook, Glacier, and many more.

            Down to the nitty gritty, the beer that were presented were:

  • A Strong Bitter from Boathouse Brewing using Fuggle and Centennial hops from Hard Hels.
  • A double IPA that came in around 7.8% from Lucky Lion Brewing using more hops than I can type out from Hoptomystic.
  • A Hazy Pale SMASH from Beermac Beer Co. using Cascade hops from Hard Hels
  • A single hop IPA from Small Garage Brewing using wet Centennial hops in the boil, but dried whole cones for a dry hop from Underground Hops.
  • A Harvest Red Ale from Heisenbrew Brewing using wet Cascade and Mount Hood Hops from Underground hops. The hops in this beer were picked and turned into beer within a 12 hour time span.
  • Lastly, Slew’s Brew’s made an ESB with hops from Underground hops.

Now I can’t tell you which beer was the best, I’m not BJCP certified, but I can tell you this—they were all good. Every single hombrewer was able to pull off very nice beers from a product they knew very little about. Bitterness, flavour and aroma were all there in different amounts depending on the style.

We had never done anything like this before as a group as most of the hop yards in Central Alberta are still in their infancy stages, with the oldest being only into their third harvest. But, you can bet your bottom dollar that we will probably be doing something like this again next year as everyone had a good time. Each of the hop yards were great in educating each of us more in how our hops are grown and the process of getting great hops.

It may have been a chilly day when I got there, but I left after some warm conversation and some great beers.

Cover photo courtesy of Ben Smithson. Photo of the beer exchange at Red Shed Malting.

Michael Szewczuk is a homebrewer and beer drinker out of Red Deer, AB.

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