Research seeks to tap into craft-brewing potential of Maritime wild hops

HALIFAX — Two federal research scientists are working with varieties of wild hops found in the Maritimes to see if some of their unique aromas can eventually be incorporated in craft beers.

Jason McCallum and Aaron Mills have spent the last two years searching out wild hops that grow mainly along creek beds and heavily forested areas in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

McCallum said in addition to the native wild hops, there are also hops varieties from Europe that have flourished since their introduction by settlers during the early colonization of North America.

As a result, the plants grow relatively abundantly and are easily recognizable to someone who knows what they are looking for.

"Just driving around you can spot it in your car at 80 kilometres an hour .... Some of the sites we found were just through random road scouting like that," McCallum said.

The plants can be quite tall — growing as high as 10 metres — and they can be found climbing up dead trees, utility pole guide wires and bridge embankments. Their leaves look similar to grape leaves.

"We often found the hops growing up apple trees on old farmsteads," Mills said.

The pair found more than 60 different wild-growing hop populations and subsequently planted samples at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Harrington Research Farm near Charlottetown.

They've since been researching the chemical composition of the varieties to determine their origin and to see which hold promise for the brewing industry.

McCallum said a particular attraction for brewers are bitter chemical compounds found in the plants known as alpha acids. The native variety that has evolved solely in the Maritimes has shown the most unique potential he said.

"All of the Maritime (native) stuff has adequate alpha acids for brewing purposes. But one thing that really stands out about them is that they have very unusual smells and flavour characteristics."

McCallum said that once dried and rubbed together, the plant's flowers produce such smells as melon, cucumber and even bubble gum.

Mills said the research is now moving into a second phase that will eventually see the hops move from the federal farm to commercial breeders.

But first the researchers have to figure out such things as the plants' yield potential and resistance to disease.

"The craft brewers will take anything and brew with it if there is a story attached to it," Mills said. "But we want to make sure that the quantity is consistent and we have a handle on the flavours."

Data will be submitted over the next two years to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's Plant Breeders Rights Office, which provides legal protection for new plant varieties. McCallum and Mills also plan to work with producers across P.E.I, Quebec and British Columbia to see if the Maritimes' wild hops varieties can be grown in other parts of Canada.

Mills said if everything goes as planned, the first plant material could go to commercial partners for planting in another two years. After that, it could take a few more years before beer incorporating the hops appears on local shelves.

McCallum said they believe they have found something that could potentially provide brewers in the Maritimes with some intriguing new products in an industry that embraces novelty.

"With the craft brewing revolution in North America, it's kind of the wild west in what's the craziest thing you can come up with that's new, and people kind of chase that," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2020.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press