Craft beer fuels rise in Michigan hops growing

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Omena — Few businesses can boast a 150 percent increase in production in two years. Michigan hop farmers can. 

Christian Astorga helps feed hop cones into a compressing machine to produce pellets at Michigan Hop Alliance in Omena. Michigan’s production of hops skyrocketed from 325 acres in 2015 to 810 acres in 2017, according to Hop Growers of America.

The growth of craft beers and number of specialty brewers has created new opportunities for growers in Michigan, where soil and climate conditions are optimal for quality hop production along the 45th Parallel. 

The renewed interest in locally grown farm products and the popularity of brewpubs have given rise to hop yards throughout the state.

"It’s just crazy. Michigan is No. 4 in hops production in the United States behind huge hop yards in the Pacific Northwest, where the climate is similar to northern Michigan,” said Rob Sirrine, a senior educator with Michigan State University’s Extension Service.

“Until a couple of years ago, hop producers in the state could not produce enough product to serve the microbrewery industry’s needs.”

It's been an astronomical growth as the state has grown in 10 years from just one acre to more than 800 acres, according to MSU. 

Much of that expansion has been in the last few years. The production of hops in the state skyrocketed from 325 acres in 2015 to 810 acres in 2017, according to Hop Growers of America in Yakima, Washington.

Michigan growers expect that acreage to stabilize in the "750-800 acre range for the next few years as some varieties of hops have ample inventories and will be idled or removed,” according to Ann E. George, executive director of the Hop Growers of America, a trade association.

Hop cones, after being dried and shredded, are crushed into pellets for storage and delivery.

The brewery industry's economic impact in Michigan was worth $2.48 billion last year, according to Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, which represents small and independent brewers. That covers everything from growing, processing, and manufacturing to selling microbrews.

At the heart of the hops harvesting, which just wound down for the season in Michigan, are the growers in the fingertips of the Mitten State. The production began to pick up steam in 2006 at the Old Mission Hop Exchange north of Traverse City and Empire Hops Farm in Leelanau County.

“We’re right smack in the middle of the perfect climate for hops," Sirrine said.

Michigan's climate near the 45th Parallel offers long days of growing sunlight through the third week of June, good temperate climate with cool nights and a gradual lessening of daylight into the late summer. The state's well-drained soil also is good for hops.

Sirrine noted that by June in Michigan, bines (vines) of the plant grow to more than 18 feet high, the cones (flowers) are produced and grow over the summer as daylight hours shorten. The cones of the hop plant, known as Humulus lupulus, can provide floral, fruity or citrus flavors in beer and herbal medicines.

Chinook hop cones are  one of 12 varieties of hops at Michigan Hop Alliance in Omena, Michigan.

The hops are harvested traditionally in August and September from the yard either by machine or by hand. They are pulled into a separator, which strips the cones from stems. The cones are dried, shredded and pelletized, packaged and stored in cold storage until shipped. Due to the high water content of the hops, the cones must be processed within 24 hours of harvest to remain fresh.

An early leader in the agricultural renaissance of hop production is Brian Tennis of the Michigan Hop Alliance in Leelanau County. His company produces 16 varieties of hops, and works with greenhouses in Traverse City and Grand Rapids, searching for the next great hop.

“Michigan brewers are adventurous,” Tennis said.” They are all looking for what’s best, what will work to bring about a great new taste. We need to supply that product year after year. We work tirelessly to produce what they need.”

That product will help quench the thirst of Michigan's 330 breweries, many of which rely on local hops. 

“We’re meeting demand,” Tennis said. “We all feed off each other.”

Also included in the growth of the product is Williamsburg-based MI Local Hops, which grows 350,000 pounds of hops each year on 220 acres on the former High Pointe Golf Course.

Alberto Orosco pulls vines onto a wagon at the Michigan Hop Alliance in Omena, Michigan on Sept. 10, 2018. The hop flowers on the 20-foot tall vines will be processed within an hour.

Owners Jason Warren and Mark Johnson saw the property’s potential and purchased it in 2015. With 580 acres, they knew they could produce a quality product to ship anywhere in the world. Mike Moran, sales and marketing director for MI Local Hops, said their use of 220 of the acres makes them "the largest hop yard east of the Rocky Mountains."

Growing 14 varieties of hops, the company also imports hops for customers from foreign growers who can produce hops that would not grow well in Michigan.

"We have established a good customer base and are producing 12 to 14 varieties of fresh hops to a growing Michigan market," he said. "Just because it's local doesn't mean it's a good product. We strive to produce the best hop available and are proud of that."

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist from Traverse City.