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This article was published 20/12/2018 (845 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
What began as a chance encounter with a story on craft beer and hops has grown into a full-on entrepreneurial venture for Randy and Lyn Tye — and they’re only just getting started.
Located just south of Boissevain, the Tyes have run their family hop farm — Prairie Mountain Hops — for more than three years, standing out as one of the few producers in the province and drawing the attention of Manitoba breweries, including Winnipeg’s own Torque Brewing and Half Pints.
The Tyes have put in a lot of hours into their newfound enterprise. But with the help of family and friends, the couple has managed to chart a steady path for themselves for what will eventually be their own personal project come retirement.
"I knew growing it wouldn’t necessarily be easy, but it would be just a matter of getting it right," Randy said.
Originally from London, Ont., Randy moved to Manitoba more than 30 years ago, where he met his wife Lyn and built a career selling farm equipment, including for Mazergroup.
"It made it easier in that I understood marketing," he said. "We got told by numerous lenders, businesspeople, that one thing was to be able to put it on paper, and draw it out, and figure out how to grow it and where the rows were going to go, and what machinery, but somebody in the team had to sell."
The Tyes considered a number of options to generate revenue off their farm — a woodlot, Christmas tree farm and U-Pick — before settling on hops.
They started out with a test plot of 30 plants, building themselves a small-scale trellis and irrigation system, and producing a small crop come harvest.
Fast forward to 2017 and the Tyes put approximately 2,500 plants in the ground by hand on 2.5 acres.
"We knew it was going to be labour intensive, but I think until you get into it, you don’t realize how labour intensive it is. That was probably the biggest thing," Lyn said.
The Tyes acquired a planter to help speed up the process and this year, they added another four acres. They hope to have 15 acres in all once finished.
While some varieties of hops do grow wild in Manitoba, much of the large-scale production is done in the Pacific northwest.
But located in a prime location, with relatively few frost-free days and good pasture, the Tyes figured hops would do just fine where they are.
And with the exception of Prairie GEM Hops near Winnipeg, Farmery Estate Brewery in Neepawa and another producer in Moosomin, Sask., Prairie Mountain Hops is the only other hop farm in the region.
"I went last year when their operation was still pretty new," said Kathy Yan Li, a homebrewer in Shilo and creator of Farm To Bottle, a podcast that traces the origins of beer ingredients.
Co-founder and past president of the University of British Columbia Brewing Club, a certified beer and mead judge, and a director for the Canadian Homebrewers Association, Li interviewed the Tyes for an episode released in October 2017.
She said she even used some of their hops to create a pretty good beer for herself. "It seems like they really planned to go commercial from the very start and their plans really speak to that."
Prairie Mountain Hops currently grows eight varieties: centennial, cascade, comet, willamette, nugget, Mount Hood, chinook, and most recently brewer’s gold, a plant that traces its origins back to Manitoba 100 years ago.
The Tyes use a drip irrigation system and a targeted pesticide for aphids, as well as t-shaped poles to form their trellis, which helps maximize the amount of space they have to grow.
But what makes Prairie Mountain Hops unique is their wet hops, which instead of being dried are pulled straight from the vine and put into a batch in order to extract as much flavour as possible.
Doing so means early mornings and long drives for Randy, but the Tyes’ efforts seem to have paid off, with their hops having been used in batches of Torque Brewing’s Finish Line IPA and Half Pints’s Fresh Hop Harvest Ale.
"It’s a busy day for him that’s for sure," said Chris Young, head brewer at Half Pints, "but it got us some really nice hops freshly delivered."
The Tyes recently bought a pelleter, which they hope to test out this winter in the hopes of selling pelleted hops that can be packaged and stored.
"Going forward, I’m certainly interested in using more of his product, both pelletized and whole leaf hops," Young said.
"... And so far, what I’ve seen from his stuff, I have no doubts."
For Randy, driving out to Winnipeg for a delivery has more to do with customer service than anything, but it also gives him a chance to help create a "masterpiece," as far as brewing is concerned.
"We’re very proud and excited that they’re finding that we can grow great hops and they’re appreciative of it," he said.
His and Lyn’s entry into the brewing scene also comes at a time when overall beer sales have dropped globally in recent years, but craft beer has gained in popularity.
According to Manitoba Brew Hub, a webpage run by Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, craft beer is the fastest growing beer segment in the province, with Canadian craft-style beers making up approximately 12.5 per cent of all beer litre sales.
"Back when I was growing up, the thing was you took a two-four of beer under your arm to the fire pit party. Those days are gone," Randy said.
"People are now buying sleeves of beer that there’s three different varieties in there, they’re talking about it, they’re trying it. It’s brought, actually, a lot of women back to the beer drinking industry, because they have something different, compared to just the same old, same old."
Just as people care about where their food comes from, Randy believes the message of buy local has extended into the craft beer market as well, and he doesn’t expect it to change any time soon.
"I don’t see that the desire of having local will change for a long time. I don’t see that."