Blue Elephant owner Heather Pond believes the best beer is brewed using Ontario hops. Now, the Simcoe restaurateur has an award to prove it.
Sweet Leaf Brown Ale – created by The Blue Elephant’s resident brewer, James Grant, using hops from Tim Wilson and Melanie Doerksen’s Carolinian Hop Yard – took home the Bottomless Cup trophy as top brew in The Great Ontario-Hopped Craft Beer Competition.
A panel of expert judges from industry and government tabbed the Norfolk-made beer as the winner out of a field of eight competitors at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Niagara Falls last February.
“I see it as the Stanley Cup of beer,” said Jason Deveau from OMAFRA, which organizes the contest to recognize exemplary collaborations between Ontario hops farmers and local breweries.
“The quality of the hops in this year’s competition far surpassed last year, which gives us a lot of faith (in Ontario’s hops industry),” he said.
“This is such a great partnership. It brings the hop grower and the brewer together,” said Pond during an awards ceremony at her restaurant earlier this month.
With its focus on educating the public about the benefits of eating local, the contest was a natural fit for The Blue Elephant, she added.
“It also makes people question what goes into beer,” said Pond. “The closer you can stay to home, the fresher your product is going to be.”
One of the four main ingredients in beer, hops was once commonly grown in Ontario but has been centred on the American West Coast since the 1920s.
Worldwide hop shortages and the emergence of the local food movement led to a resurgence of the niche crop in Ontario.
“Microbreweries were looking for the product and not finding it, so they were asking, why don’t we grow it here?” said Elford, who researches hops at OMAFRA’s Simcoe Research Station.
The hops scene has become more crowded over the last decade, going from five Ontario growers on 10 acres to 32 growers farming 50 acres today.
At the Carolinian Hop Yard, Wilson and Doerksen plan to soon expand beyond their single acre of hops, eventually adding barley and rye to the mix. The long-range plan is to one day open their own craft brewery, the Charlotteville Brewing Company, using ingredients found within walking distance of their farm.
An award-winning beer brewed with their hops is a strong hint that the fourth-year farmers are on the right track, Wilson said.
“We’re immensely proud. It encourages us to put ourselves on the map,” he said. “As Norfolk natives, we couldn’t be happier to bring this unique award home to highlight a neat partnership that we hope to cultivate further.”
“It adds to our legitimacy as a hop farm. We’re trying to embrace and showcase what our region has,” agreed Doerksen, a culinary arts instructor at Fanshawe College and president of the Ontario Hop Growers Association.
She and Wilson, an anatomy professor at Western University, commute from London to their farm west of Walsh on weekends to work the land. The couple has high hopes for continued success with hops, a plant with a history in Norfolk that predates the current crop of growers.
“We’re starting over with a crop that already knows the soil,” Wilson said.
“It adds to the repertoire of what Norfolk produces. It’s certainly local – it starts from the dirt up.”