Crannog Ales owners Rebecca Kneen and Brian MacIssac pose with the hops they grow on their Sorrento farm and use in brewing their organic beer. -Image Credit: Photo contributed

Craft brewery owners question ALC rule changes

New regulations could make farm operation illegal.

Crannóg Ales owners Rebecca Kneen and Brian MacIssac say changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve appear to make what they are doing illegal.

The couple, who have owned and worked the Sorrento-based organic on-farm brewery for 17 years, say they are hopping mad over regulation changes regarding on-farm breweries they say were made without consultation.

As well, the couple would also be interested in knowing whether it is the Agricultural Land Commission or the Ministry of Agriculture that has the power to effect changes in regulations concerning small-farm use.

Kneen says she and MacIsaac provided the ALC with a letter in 1999 and have been operating under ALC approval since then.

“They originally approved us for a classification that no longer exists; at the time it was on-farm industry,” says Kneen, noting she and MacIsaac learned of recent ALR changes, like many others, through newspaper stories. “They (ALC commissioners) came out in 1999 and said ‘it’s all fine, your footprint is really small and we’d really like it if you would write an application for this to serve as a model for integrated industry and farm use.’”

While they didn’t do this, Kneen says a number of commission members have been out to the farm, not always the ALC, but always under the umbrella of investment agriculture.

“We operated fully with approval; we haven’t been hiding our light under a bushel and I am mystified about why they haven’t contacted us and why they write a regulation that does not include what we’re doing and have been doing for 17 years, with their original approval,” says Kneen.

She says she and MacIsaac became concerned when one of their employees said someone from the Agricultural Land Commission told them Crannóg Ales does not exist.

There seems to be some confusion about this.

On Monday, Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick said Crannóg had applied to do a non-farm activity and had been turned down by the ALC.

But Kneen vigorously denies this.

Letnick pointed out the ALC is an independent body separate of government and the last time the government overruled a commission decision was when the NDP was in power.

Kneen is also mystified that, on the one hand, the ALC apparently said they don’t exist, but on the other has said Crannóg grows all their own barley. They don’t, but they do grow their own hops.

New regulations specify that hops are not considered a brewing ingredient, and that on-farm breweries must produce 50 per cent of their barley needs on their own farm. This shuts out both Crannóg Ales and Persephone Brewing from the Sunshine Coast – ALC actions against which caused Kneen and MacIsaac to take a proactive stance.

Neither farm brewery has sufficient land to produce any percentage of their malting barley needs and neither brewery runs a malthouse alongside the brewery.

“Raw barley is not a brewing ingredient, it must be malted before it is usable for brewing,” says MacIsaac, noting Crannóg relies on a malting company in Armstrong. “Much of B.C. is not at all suitable for the production of malting barley, which has entirely different climate and needs from feed barley.”

This regulation would mean that Crannóg would have to not only quadruple its farm size, but increase industrial production on farmland by putting in their own malthouse” adds Kneen, noting malting is a different process, requiring its own extensive facility and year-long storage, which is very land-intensive.

Not only have Kneen and MacIsaac been teaching hops production throughout Canada, they have also acted as an incubator farm for several successful market gardeners and seed producers. The farm produces 98 per cent of the brewery’s hops, as well as the fruit and herbs used in their beer.

“We’ve spent 17 years supporting and defending the ALC, so it’s a bit of a slap in the face,” Kneen says. “The chambers of commerce are bringing forward a policy which is asking the province to amend the regulation to bring it more in line with wineries and cideries which essentially would allow us to obtain barley through a local maltster since one actually exists. “I personally have spent the last 15 years trying to make hops a viable industry and what they’re doing is undermining agriculture in the province. I’m sure it’s not what they meant to do, but it is what they have done.”

There are a lot of good people who are concerned about this from municipalities across B.C. A petition on Change.org, addressed to the Minister of Agriculture, to change the regulations to support sustainable on-farm breweries while maintaining restrictions to non-agricultural use of farmland, says Kneen.

But Martin Collins, ALC director of Policy and Planning says he wonders why Crannóg Ales is reacting when nobody from the commission has initiated any action against the brewery.

“We need to know if what they’re doing is appropriate,” Collins said, noting he is not sure if he has all the paperwork necessary to determine how the farm is operating. “Crannóg shouldn’t assume, they should speak to us. Nobody is pursuing them, but before the conjecture, I need to speak to them.”

In a March 13 email to the brewery, Collins said he would be happy to speak with Kneen and MacIsaac but cautioned them about regulation changes.

“However, be advised that questions about recent changes to the regulations to breweries should be directed to the Ministry of Agriculture which is responsible for amendments to ALC legislation,” he wrote, pointing out a copy of Crannóg’s correspondence has been sent to the ministry.

An angry Kneen says she and MacIsaac were not making an application, merely asking for clarification.

“From various news reports, it seemed clear that they either did not know we existed or were under a severe misapprehension about what we do.”

Columbia Shuswap Regional District South Shuswap director Paul Demenok agrees, calling changes to the regulation “probably the law of unintended consequences.”

“I think it would be a terrible shame if they were forced to shut down, if government regulations would force them out,” he says, pointing out only the Ministry of Agriculture can change the regulations. “I stand behind Crannóg 100 per cent. It’s Canada’s first organic certified farm brewery and they make an outstanding product and the thing about it is the way they do business in an environmentally friendly, sustainable and self-sufficient way.”