Exploring the History of Hops in Preston Ontario

As you may have read on this website, I have a childhood connection to hops that I’ve been exploring now that we’re in the business. I grew up in Preston, a town in the city of Cambridge. My childhood home, near the convergence of the Speed and Grand Rivers, lies at the edge of an area that once was home to one of the “largest hops yards in the Dominion”, the Preston Hop Yards. This hop yard was once owned by the Moore family from which the son, George Moore, started a 70 acre hop yard in nearby Waterloo in the area of Union St. and Moore Ave. For more information on the Moore family click here. There a historical sign along the walking trail at the convergence of the Speed and Grand that explains a bit of this history. Preston actually became a town through “crafty” scheduling of its census during hop growing season. To be declared a “town”, they needed 2000 citizens, and this became possible because of the population surge that would take place during the hop growing season from the influx of native Indians that would travel up from Brantford to work in the hop yards during the summer months.
My Grandfather, Walter Hilgartner, loved to share stories with anyone who’d listen. Growing up, I remember Grandpa mentioning frequently about the Preston Hop Yards. His childhood home (which is a block from my childhood home) was adjacent the hop yards. Grandpa once told me a story of driving his first car (I think a Model T) at a young age (underage) and being chased through the nearby orchards and hop yards by a police car. At that time when they caught up to him, they just told him “Walter go home, and don’t be driving down the roads anymore until you’re older”. Something tells me things might be a little different if that were to happen today if a 12 year old got behind the wheel. My Grandpa passed away several years ago, and unfortunately my recollection of all of his stories is vague, but that story I remember clearly. If he were around today, I know that he would be able to share a lot more stories involving hop farming in Preston. Grandpa also used to speak of the old brewery located at the other end of town which was owned by the Henry Bernhardt and some of the old buildings can still be seen today. This brewery would have used the hops from the nearby Preston Hop Yards. Here’s a link about the Rock Springs Brewery.  Rock Springs Export Ale
While recalling these memories and doing research, I had read that hops can still be seen along the walking trail that goes along the old hop yards along the Speed River. This got me thinking “I wonder if we could find some of the plants and transfer some to our farm?” Soon, during a visit with my parents, we walked the length of the river trail but unfortunately we couldn’t locate any of the old plants or remnants of the old yards. Even with a clear idea of where to look, we found nothing. I decided to reach out and post a message on the Preston Ontario Facebook group asking if anyone had seen them. In this age of social media, it took maybe an hour before I was contacted by a local historian, Ray Ruddy, claiming that he had seen some of the hops while walking the trail the year prior. He even had a picture of one of the plants and there was no question in my mind that he had found the gold at the end of the rainbow. We soon setup a meeting and before long Julie and I drove to Preston to meet with Ray. We took a short walk down to the river (about a block from his house) and before long he had re-located where he had seen the plants the year prior. To our amazement, there they were! In the very place where I had walked by just a few weeks prior, we just hadn’t looked up high enough.

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If not for the cones on the plants, they would have been hard to identify because much of the leaves had been defoliated by insects. I inspected the cones and couldn’t see any seeds which to me means there must not be any males nearby and therefore these plants were all female which would be what you’d expect if they were from the old hop yard. These plants were right at the edge of the old farm,  the rest of the area now covered by subdivisions. I can’t say with 100% certainty, but my belief is that these roots are part of plants that have been in the ground for over 100 years on land that ceased being a hop yard nearly a century ago.

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We carefully harvested a couple roots from the plants and not have approx. 100 plants in the ground

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While we can’t immediately identify the variety, we can have next year’s cones tested to see what kind of brewing qualities are present in the hops. Our expectation would be that these would be a German Hop, likely brought in the form of rhizome by the original settlers of the area but only genetic testing ($$$) in a lab can say with certainty their origins. We’re still searching for some of the old brewery recipes from any of the area brewers (that would have used hops from those yards) and are interested in re-producing them using some of the original ingredients (specifically cloned plants from the old hop yards). If we can get these to grow and produce a desirable product, you might just see them in a beer in the near future! Check back under “Wild Hops” for updates on our progress.

 

One comment on “Exploring the History of Hops in Preston Ontario

  1. […] you can still find hops growing in what was known as the Preston Hop Yards, once regarded as the “... https://cbridge.ca/craft-beer-breweries-in-cambridge-ontario

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