Homebrewers and Ontario Hops – Potential for Direct Marketing?

By Evan Elford, New Crop Development Specialist, OMAFRA; and

Dr. Jason S.T. Deveau, Application Technology Specialist, OMAFRA

Historically, home brewing has been seen as an underground hobby for those seeking a more cost effective way to produce beer, but not so for today’s home brewing enthusiast. Their passion is to create unique brews with quality ingredients, and they may be a direct marketing opportunity Ontario’s hop growers.

Homebrewers rely on web-based stores for equipment and ingredients, including hops. Prices for locally grown hops depend on many factors including variety, availability (demand), quality, physical state (whole leaf vs. pelletized), and the target market. A review of these on-line Canadian retailers places the current average price for dry, whole leaf hops between $1.12 – $2.36 per 28 g (1 oz), plus applicable shipping costs. These figures were calculated based on the average price for 20 varieties sold in 113 g (4 oz) packages and 24 varieties sold in 453.5 g (16 oz) packages.

Homebrew recipes are generally scaled to 19 litre (5 US gallon) batches. The recipes for session brews (i.e. moderate alcohol and moderate bitterness) require approximately 85 g (3 oz) of dried hops in any form (whole leaf or pelletized). The stronger and hoppier recipes call for three hop additions, as well as a hopback and dry-hopping step that can easily require up to 170 g (6 oz) of dried hops. Therefore, offering packaged hops in smaller sizes increases the convenience for home brewers. They are typically sold in 28 g (1 oz), 113 g (4 oz) or 453.5g (16 oz) sizes.

Reaching the homebrew market may be viable for your operation. Advertising or some marketing campaign, complete with an on-line presence would be a must. As for equipment, an appropriate scale (figure 1) and commercial vacuum sealer (figure 2) are all that would be required. Drying hops to the appropriate moisture content (generally 8-12%) is important before packing in order to ensure quality to the end user. Transparent vacuum packs allow the consumer to see the quality of the product through the packaging while greatly reducing harmful oxygen exposure. Alternatively, opaque foil bags are better at preserving the product by excluding both oxygen and harmful light.

The only other investment is time. We packaged more than 50 vacuum-sealed, 1.5 oz bags of whole leaf hops. The average time was just over 2 minutes per package, including labelling. This could be reduced considerably if one person were to weigh while the other loaded and sealed bags. Adhesive labels stating the variety, weight, and acid profile could also be used to save time and make the packaging more professional.

Figure 1 – Scales used for commercial sales can range in price from $60.00-1,000.00. Generally speaking, if you require very accurate measurement and are weighing large volumes of product you will need a more expensive scale. Be aware that accuracy requirements for weighing agricultural goods for commercial sale are regulated under the Weights and Measures Act by Measurement Canada and enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Scale calibrations can be completed by your local scale supplier or by request to the CFIA.

Figure 2 – Vacuum sealing a 56 gram (2 oz) bag of Ontario-grown whole leaf Magnum hops. Commercial food grade vacuum sealers are readily available for small business needs. The strip vacuum sealer shown here is a table top version with computer controls in a price range of $500.00 and is a viable option for packaging hops. Smaller, inexpensive kitchen units should be avoided as the seal can break easily and compromise the quality of your product. More expensive chamber vacuum sealers can also be purchased in a price range of approximately $1,500.00.

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