Our Work, Food, Environment, Crisis & Change, Leisure
Earth to Pint: Farm-Raised Beer in Rural Ontario
Curated by Philip Rich
Storyteller: Gail Winters
November 4, 2021
Hops can be a tricky crop to grow. A core ingredient for brewing beer, hops thrive in dry, sandy climates. Most breweries import hops from the Pacific Northwest or Europe, where conditions are ideal for growing hops, but GoodLot Farmstead Brewing in Caledon, Ontario brews exclusively with Ontario-grown hops, and many of their hops are homegrown.
Run by Phil and Gail Winters, GoodLot is both an organic hop farm and a brewery – making it a distinct operation at the intersection of sustainability, agriculture, and heritage. GoodLot began as an undecided agricultural project – the product of a change in lifestyle the couple sought in October 2009. “We had both dreamed of farming as a career and decided to dive in,” Phil Winters told me on a Tuesday afternoon call from the farm. It has become his and Gail’s primary occupation.
Farming runs in both of their families. Gail was raised on a farm in Caledon and Phil’s family operated a fish farm on St. Josephs Island. In 2009, they purchased 27 acres worth of heritage farmland in Caledon – cleared and cultivated by the Pinkney family between 1820 and 1960. In the intervening years, it was a horse farm before the Winters acquired it and began farming hops.
Why choose hops as a crop?
Winters says that they spent the first year “researching specialty crops” – wondering what crop to grow – and timing played a key role in the decision to cultivate hops. That year, hop yields were significantly diminished in Oregon and Europe, and there was a significant demand for hops around the world.
The Winters wondered if they could help fill the hop void, while also tapping into Ontario’s long history of hop growing. Pre-prohibition, hop farms in the province were numerous. It was a popular crop in Prince Edward County, which supplied much of New York State with hops. But because of Prohibition, family farms turned to other production, and the legacy of hops as a crop began to fade.
As part of their research, the Winters reached out to different Ontario breweries to gauge what they were looking for in their hops. In 2011, the Winters tested a small hop yard of 250 rhizomes, embracing regenerative farming techniques and taking care of the soil to avoid using chemicals and pesticides. They now organically farm 2.5 acres with approximately 2000 rhizomes of chinook, cascade, and centennial hops.
There are many challenges to growing hops. They are a temperamental crop susceptible to unstable weather patterns. Winters also explains that hops are a “volume game” as profit is made from cultivating in abundance. Worrying about more erratic weather patterns and insurance being unavailable for hops encouraged the Winters to consider alternative business models. Brewing their own beer rose to the top of the list. Winters considers it a hedge against climate change.
“Farming’s hard enough. Farming in a climate-changing world is twice as difficult,” Winters explained. “We could take what we grow and turn it into a finished product. We asked ourselves if we could pursue a truly Ontario beer.”
The hard work that the couple has put into the farm is evident. Phil and Gail took courses in New York State and Wisconsin, while exploring farms on the Great Lakes to prepare. Phil also took a full-time job to help support the farm in its early days while Gail continued to run the farm on her own. The farm began to thrive, and the Winters planned the expansion to a brewery and farm.
GoodLot began contract brewing with the Wellington Brewery in Guelph in 2016 and their beers became favourites in local bars and restaurants – selling out quickly and indicating that there was a demand for quality beer brewed with local hops. They subsequently built a brewery at the farm and eventually opened a bottle shop on the farm in 2018.
Phil Winters consistently returned to the concept of terroir when describing GoodLot’s beer goals. A popular idea in winemaking, terroir refers to the environmental factors that give a product its character. This could include the origin of the ingredients, the ecosystems that they grow in, or the characteristics of the weather for a particular season, among other factors. The Winters want their beers to taste as ‘Ontario’ as possible. As such, they use 100% Ontario hops and brew with water from wells on their land. However, the brewery does import its grains from larger farms in Saskatchewan. Barley for malting is a difficult crop to source from Ontario, especially in the quantities needed to brew beer.
Admirably, the Winters aren’t afraid to tackle social and environmental challenges. Phil argues that their brewery is one of the most energy-efficient in Ontario. Their regenerative farming practices contribute to a healthier environment. He also emphasized the importance of community organizing to confront agricultural challenges. At the 2013 Guelph Organic Conference, GoodLot helped found the Ontario Hop Growers' Association, and the Winters have lobbied against larger industrial projects that could potentially threaten ecosystems in Caledon and the surrounding rural communities.
They have since expanded the bottle shop into a patio on the farm, where they host live music and other events. It’s an excellent spot to sit for a drink and see how the hops grow, knowing that it’s possible to create a popular product and do it sustainably – perhaps bringing a new meaning to ‘drinking responsibly’.