Those acquainted with the Southwest Michigan Beer scene know that despite being part of a multi-million dollar industry, a sense of community prevails among owners, brewers and patrons that is rare in high-profile business ventures.
The idea that everyone involved from final consumer to the grower of hops is interconnected creates a bond that only becomes stronger when the ingredients used to make the beer are every bit as local as the people who brew and consume it.
"We strive to support other small business whether that be farms or gardens or organic growers," says Mike Barnaart, owner of Hasting’s Waldorff Brewpub. "We try to reciprocate. A lot of folks like our local flavor and we like their local flavor too."
Barnaart was talking specifically about his brewery, but his statement accurately sums up the Southwest Michigan beer world as a whole.
From the heavyweights like Bell’s in Comstock, which last year pumped out more than 180,000 barrels and still found time to brew yearly small batches like Harvest Ale, all the way down to newcomers on the scene like Greenbush in Sawyer, whose brewers handpick ingredients at the local farmers market -- many brewers are choosing to source their ingredients from area farms or in some cases even ingredients they grow themselves.
Bell’s Brewing Inc.,
which first opened its doors to the public in 1985, anchors the Southwest Michigan Beer industry by sending its brands such as Two Hearted Ale, Lager of the Lakes, and seasonal favorite Oberon to 18 states in the Midwest, Southeast and West plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.
The company will be able to brew even more now that it has a 200-barrel brewhouse, which opened for production this spring. Despite being the seventh largest craft brewer in the nation, the brewers at Bell’s take perhaps just as much pride in their small batch and other community sourced beers.
"Harvest Ale is all locally grown hops," says John Mallett, Bell’s director of operations. "Some of it is grown in people’s backyards, like friends of the brewery who have a couple vines up. Everybody comes together, we hand pick them all and dry them."
The crisp, hoppy amber-style ale available in the autumn often uses Bell’s own barley, which the company grows on a farm near Shepherd. The farm also supplies barley for Christmas Ale.
"We love that element of being close to the land, fundamentally understanding that really critical raw material. It’s very important," Mallett says. "The real advantage for us is that we just have a much more deep understanding of what’s important there, what to look for, what the pros and cons of farming are. Knowing what can go wrong makes it easier to troubleshoot when something does go wrong."
As anyone close to the land knows, every crop is just one hot summer, or pest invasion, away from things going very wrong indeed.
Bonnie Steinman co-owns Hickory Corners based Hop Head Farms
with her husband Jeff. The couple officially opened the Southwest Michigan hop farm last season and are now beginning to take orders from several local breweries.
The only problem is that the record hot summer the area saw stunted the crop, and the farm is scrambling to make up for lost growing time now that the rain has returned.
"This year has been a little rough because of the heat. It stopped a lot of the vertical growth for a while," Steinman says.
The 15-acre farm, which currently tends 15,000 plants, supplies hops to Waldorff and Paw Paw Brewing Company
and Steinmann is confident that orders for the locally grown and processed material will increase now that the company has a fully functional pelletizer.
Steinman believes the machine, which turns fresh cut hops into smaller, easy to use pellets, will show area brewers that the company, and by default the entire Michigan hops farming industry, is a serious and viable alternative to purchasing hops from out-of-state.
"Most breweries are really excited, but are hesitant to buy any large quantities. There’s a lot of proving to be done," Steinmann says.
Some of that proof will have to come not just from the growers, but from the crop itself. Questions remain whether Michigan grown hops, and other brewing ingredients can reach the quality that is consistently offered by its West Coast counterparts.
Bill White of White Flame Brewery
in Hudsonville worries that the current price of locally grown ingredients could force cost conscious brewers to look elsewhere for raw materials.
"Cost can be twice as much for (locally grown) hops," White says. "I think they’re going to have to drop (their prices) or they won’t remain competitive."
Though price is a concern, White, nonetheless, uses locally sourced ingredients whenever he gets the chance.
For his Hooterville Wheat beer -- which donates one-fifth of its profits to breast cancer research in West Michigan -- White sources the grain from Midland, a distance of less than 125 miles. One local brewery would prefer to make an even shorter trip.
"There is a big garden center behind us so we just walk around and go 'Oh, those look good'; 'Oh, let’s make a blueberry wheat'; 'Let’s make a blackberry pale,'" says Jill Sites co-owner of Greenbush Brewing
Greenbush’s hyper-local attitude towards brewing has allowed the year-old brewery in Sawyer to make a series of single-batch experiments using whatever ingredients are in season. When local hop farmers, even from small farms with a couple of pounds of hops to offer come to Greenbush they try to use them.
"We like to use as many local products as possible," Sites says. "We’re working as best as we can with what is available. We also give our spent grain from brewing to a local cow farmer who we then buy brisket from for our barbecue weekends."
Sites sees Greenbush and other local breweries as part of a larger agricultural network in Southwest Michigan, part of a growing trend in people seeking out locally grown and produced goods to eat and drink, a trend Sites sees as more of a way life than a fad.
"I think that many of the people that are using the local ingredients are just finding different ways to use them," Sites says. "We’re the same people that would buy blueberries in the summer to freeze and put into jams or pies and this is just sort of an extension of that."
The belief in locally grown brewing ingredients that Sites and others convey feeds into the idea that everyone involved in the area’s brewing industry is part of a community of individuals, all of whom are seeking a high-quality product that they can be proud to both make and to drink.
"There is so much demand that what we need to focus on is quality," Steinman says. "It’s just a nice thing to be a part of."
Jeremy Martin is a freelance writer. A graduate of Western Michigan University, he lives in Portage with his wife. Follow him @secondwavebeer on Twitter.
Photos of Hop Head Farms by Jeremy Martin.