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Hops in Alberta…. the next crop diversification idea

Craft beer breweries have been sprouting up all over Alberta thanks to provincial government incentives and automated small-scale brewing equipment. Some of it is so compact it serves a single retail restaurant or pub outlet, a sort of micro-brewery. Part of the allure is a belief that manufacturing and selling alcohol directly to the consumer is a license to print money. There is probably some truth to that but the only real license to print money is held by the government through fees and taxes inflicted on those in the beer business. The previous NDP government was particularly enthusiastic about encouraging new craft brewery development through incentive programs and tax breaks. But like incentives to encourage more well drilling the former government gave you money on the one hand, but if you made any money, they quickly taxed it back and then some. 
At a recent count there are 117 craft breweries in Alberta. But even with that many the market is still dominated by two big dog brewery giants, Anheuser-Busch and Molson-Coors both foreign-owned behemoths who between them control about 60% of the Canadian market. Still it wasn’t too many years ago that you could count small Alberta-based brewers on one hand – that being Big Rock in Calgary and Uncle Ben’s in Red Deer. It was tough starting a brewery back then as government regulations and liquor board marketing favoured the big players. When that was loosed up the craft brewing business took off. 
Much of the expansion was also based on the notion that smaller local breweries produced more flavourful beer from local ingredients. That was certainly true for the malt barley used in beer making being Alberta is renowned for growing such legendary varieties as Harrington which was exported to breweries all over the world. But locally-grown malt barley is not a marketing advantage if every brewer including the big dogs are using the same product. Because of their massive buying power, the big brewers can access malting barley cheaper than craft breweries. Which is part of the economic reality for the smaller players, that has led some of them to encourage the growing of hops in Alberta. Hops are a major flavour part of beer brewing. Therein lies a new crop diversification opportunity. But first some hop growing history.
At one time there was a significant commercial hop growing business in the BC Fraser Valley and around Kamloops. That all disappeared by the 1990s mainly because the big brewers began to buy their hop requirements from cheaper foreign sources in Washington state and Australia. However small brewers would rather buy local so a demand has developed that has seen a revival of hop production in traditional BC growing areas with over 200 acres already under development. But BC hops are not local enough for Alberta craft brewers, hence the growing interest in growing hops in this province. To date about 20 acres in various parts of central and southern Alberta are in various stages of development. 
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