Michigan hop farmers are upbeat about their future

Michigan's hop growers are predicting a robust harvest -- good news for this small but growing segment of the state's agriculture industry.

With more than 500 acres dedicated to hop cultivation, Michigan is the fourth-largest hop-producing state in the nation, trailing only Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, Michigan stands unrivaled in the Great Lakes region. 

Hop farmers are a small part of the state's important craft beer scene, with many growers selling to local brewers. The Michigan Brewers Guild celebrates the state's brewing prowess as a thriving powerhouse. With contributions of more than $144 million in wages and a staggering economic impact of more than $600 million, Michigan's breweries, microbreweries, and brewpubs have earned the state the rank of number six in the nation. 

Beyond the numbers, what truly sets Michigan apart is a passion for local ingredients and a commitment to quality. Though there are numbers few, Michigan hop growers are especially passionate about their efforts and what their products mean for the state's craft beer scene.

“There's something special about having a beer that's 100 percent Michigan-grown. With the growth of the malting industry in Michigan, there's now enough malt, hops, and to a lesser extent, yeast to make a beer with 100 percent Michigan ingredients without any problems,” says Brian Tennis, founder of the Hop Alliance. “It wasn’t like that ten years ago; now it certainly is.”   

Brian Tennis is the founder of the Hop Alliance.

A few weeks into harvest, growers are positive, expecting higher yields or matching last year’s harvest. Some are predicting double-digit increases in yields.

"Right now, the harvest outlook is very positive,” J. Robert Sirrine, the Community Food Systems Educator at Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, specializing in hop production, said in an email earlier this month. "Growers are starting to harvest early cultivars, and yields and quality look above average. We have had an ideal growing season." 

The hop harvest season in Michigan begins in early to mid-August, and each variety ripens at different times. Growers send samples to labs for testing. 

"Having access to science, not just the hops' appearance, has been awesome because the biggest mistake newer hop growers make is they harvest too early," said Rose Stahl, who, along with her husband, John, owns Mr. Wizard's Hops in Monroe.  

Stahl identified vigilance as her number one challenge facing hop farmers.  Hop growers must constantly watch for diseases, insects, and hermaphrodites, which is when female plants grow male flowers. Then there is the issue of water.

“Hops like to be moist, but they don’t like to get their feet wet if that makes sense. Hop plants drink a couple of gallons per plant every day,” according to Tennis.

The Hop Alliance collaborates with MSU on the science to track what happens in the hop yard. “It is critical,” Tennis said.

Top Hops Farm, in Goodrich, also collects leaf samples and soil samples for testing, said Sean Trowbridge, the farm’s owner. “We try to pair up a tissue sample with the soil sample to have the full picture. What's in the soil, what's in the plant,” he said.

“You can do everything right throughout the entire season,” Tennis said. “And if you have either a spider mite breakout or maybe downy mildew infection, which can happen late in the season if that happens, you could have done everything right for two or three months and lose most of your crop or have a crop that's unsaleable just because of the quality.” 

“Maintaining focus is essential,” Tennis said, adding that the only things that could undermine the crop this season would be hail, a major wind event, or a spider mite breakout.” 

While vigilance is critical for hop growers, working efficiently and leveraging technology is vital to the bottom line and producing a quality product. 

When the growing season has been kind, the hop harvest becomes a symphony of precision and collaboration.

Helping with the hop harvest at Mr. Wizard Hops in Monroe.

Growers carefully remove hops from the trellises, then harvesters deftly remove unwanted stems and leaves. The hops are then dried to perfection, either destined for immediate transformation into pellets or gently baled for cold storage, awaiting their turn in the pellet facility. Not every grower has the machinery for the intricate dance.

Growers without the necessary equipment turn to fellow growers like the Hop Alliance or Mr. Wizard’s Hops. 

Hop Alliance has a new dryer and pellet facility. The process can go from plant to pellet in about 24 hours.  “We can pick, dry, and pelletize all within 24 to 48 hours. And that really seals in the freshness, and it also allows us to harvest quickly and be the first ones to market with our product typically,” Tennis said.

Growers aim to complete the harvest quickly and distribute the product. It is essential to get the hops to the market and sell them while they're as fresh as possible. Generally, growers won't see a higher price per pound after that initial six-month period. There might be exceptions if a particular hop becomes scarce in the market, potentially driving the price up. 

Top Hops Farm was awarded a $21,000 Grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) to improve the processing capacity and the product quality of their hop pelletizing line. “The auto bagging system should help us touch the hops less and less jostling of the hops," Trowbridge said.

“It’s like a head chef, that food is getting served, and you want to make sure it is perfect,” Trowbridge added. “You’ve got your team helping you, but it's all on your shoulders as far as the final product.”  

Michigan is perfect for hops

Sirrine shared his thoughts about Michigan being an ideal location to grow hops: “If you look at where hops are grown around the world -- it is between 40 - 50 latitude. There are some hops outside of that range, but they will need artificial lighting. Hops are photoperiod sensitive. Daylight drives the production stages, and latitude during the season determines day length. Heat units can affect growth during each stage of production.

"So, if you are too far south in latitude, the plant will grow too early in the season and reach the critical number of nodes and day length that induces flowering. This can result in low yields and a split crop. If too far north, the plants do not have enough days and heat to maximize yield. So we are in the perfect spot in Michigan. We also have plenty of water and well-drained soils.”

The geographical advantage of Michigan for hop farming naturally extends benefits to local brewers as well by giving them quality hops on demand.

The brewers can personally inspect and touch the product they will use, whether it's Cascade, Chinook, Bittergold, or something else. Some contracting is involved, so a brewery can be assured that these products will be available to them for the foreseeable future. Brewers know they will be fresh, and locally grown, and they can build lasting relationships with the hop growers.

“You can buy hops anywhere, but purchasing them from someone you know and trust goes much further than just finding something cheap,” Tennis added. 

The benefits of local hops

Todd Parker, head brewer at Rochester Mills Beer Co. in Rochester, uses mostly Michigan hops in his seasonal beers.

“I have found Michigan hops to be as good if not better than some other producers,” he said.

He agreed that having local hop growers has multiple benefits, from cheaper and faster shipping or the ability to talk with the growers.   

It's nice that other brewers across the country are realizing there are quality hops here, especially the Chinook hops. It is just one of the examples of a hop grown in Michigan that's completely unique to the state; the terroir and the growing conditions make it very different than a Pacific Northwest-grown Chinook,” Tennis said. 

Chinook hops

Chinook hops are a dual-purpose hop used for both bittering and aroma. Sthal explained, “Michigan Chinook is more grapefruit, and the Pacific Northwest Chinook is more piney. Piney is the high aroma profile.” 

Stahl said that brewers are seeking out the unique taste and aroma profiles of Michigan Chinook to complement their beers. They are also finding that Michigan Cascade is the same way offering brewers a unique character for that particular variety of hops.

The unique characteristics of Michigan's Chinook hops are just one example of how community and collaboration have shaped the state's hop industry.

The success of Michigan's hop industry is a testament to the collaboration between the hop growers, Michigan State University, brewers, and key organizations like Hop Growers of Michigan. This organization makes a positive difference in Michigan’s hop industry by supporting educational opportunities and research for better hop production and processing and advocating for and promoting the use of Michigan-grown hops

“The quality has never been better industry-wide in our state. Everybody has learned as they go,” Tennis said. “I believe Michigan is producing some of the finest hops in the country. There's no question.” 

Brenda and Chuck Marshall have been chronicling the beauty and culture of Michigan for over ten years. Their stories, filled with local insights and experiences, are published on LifeInMichigan.com. In addition to his writing, Chuck is passionate about photography and has become a prominent documenter of Michigan's vibrant music and craft beer scenes. Together, they promote Michigan one story at a time
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