Sea Level Brewing's owner, Randy Lawrence, is known for his motto: "Don't be loco, drink local." The Port Williams brewer, one of the first microbrewers in the Maritimes, has been championing the possibility of an all-Nova Scotia beer for many years. But it took travelling close to 6,000 kilometres to Washington State for Lawrence to experience what he calls "the highlight of my brewing career," while standing in the middle of a 750-acre farm.
Last fall, Lawrence was one of only two Canadians chosen by the Canada Malting Company to join five other North Americans for the hops crop evaluation---an opportunity most brewers would give their right arm for.
Washingtons's Yakima Valley supplies 70 percent of North America's hops, or more than five million pounds of hops each year. Although the 750-acre B.T. Loftus Ranches farm that Lawrence visited is one of the smallest hops farms in the Valley, they had been harvesting 68,000 pounds an hour for the last three weeks. That's a lot of hops.
Since hops are one of the four essential components of beer (along with water, malt and yeast), to be standing surrounded by them as far as the eye can see was a pretty big deal, especially considering hops shortages in recent years. By the end of the day, after evaluating 12 varieties of hops from as many farms, "the air was heavy with hop resin," recalls Lawrence in amazement. "It literally stuck to the hair on your arms. It was one of the most memorable experiences in my brewing career."
Even considering brewers' fascination with hops---beer makers are constantly experimenting with how to incorporate the right ratio and variety to generate a beer's aroma, flavour and bitterness---anyone who knows Lawrence understands he has a special place in his heart for them. In the early 1980s he imported hops rhizomes from a farm in Oregon and became one of the first hops growers in the Annapolis Valley. Today, he has more than 200 vines on his five-acre farm, which he uses in his beers at Sea Level Brewing.
For the past two years, Lawrence has collaborated with Propeller on the wet-hopped Alpha%Dog, made with hops grown on his farm. And last fall, he released the seasonal Bitterdaze IPA, a traditional English-style IPA brewed with New Brunswick barley.
But Lawrence's dream of an all-Nova Scotia beer is bigger than just hops and grain. In recent years, he's been championing the idea of installing a kilning operation in the province---or at the least a smaller-scale micro maltster in the Valley---which would allow breweries to convert their barley to brewing grain in Nova Scotia, rather than shipping it to Canada Malting in Montreal.
Until then, Lawrence continues to promote locally-made beers and tends to his hops farm (six new rhizomes are arriving in the mail for him this spring). And although the Sea Level brewhouse is expanding to allow Lawrence to expand his capacity, the microbrewer from the Valley says he will continue focusing on quality over quantity. "I want to keep it craft beer," he says.
Haligonians who want a taste of Lawrence's craft can head to Bishops Cellar, Crystal & Luckett or Harvest Wines & Spirits on March 15 to pick up Sea Level's 2012 Bitterdaze IPA. —Christine Beevis