Empire beer festival is ‘the real deal’

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News

Hops, those cone-shaped flowers that are one of the essential ingredients in the magical recipe to create beer, are inspiring new festivals across Michigan.

In some cases, “hops” may just be a substitute word for beer or brew, a clever marketing spin. But in Empire, a postcard-pretty village along the shores of Lake Michigan in the shadow of Sleeping Bear Dunes, Saturday’s Empire Hops Festival is really about, well, hops.

“When they started growing hops locally, it gave us an opportunity to have a fall festival,” says Paul Skinner, a transplanted Brit who owns an antiques and gift shop, The Miser’s Hoard, in Empire. “There are four hops farms in Empire Township. The festival is reflective of the growth of craft beer brewing in Michigan.”

The Great Lakes State is home to more than 250 craft brewers, a number expected to grow as demand rises. In the last decade, Michigan has become the fourth-largest producer of hops, behind only Washington, Oregon and Idaho, supplying brewers in the state and across the country. About 1,000 to 1,200 acres of hops have been planted in Michigan.

Many of the brewers pouring suds on Saturday are using locally grown hops in their creations. Some will also offer brews made especially for the festival, which drew about 2,500 people last year. Breweries include Stormcloud Brewing Co., Odd Side Ales and Right Brain Brewery.

And for those who join the fun under the big tent on Front Street, they’ll be standing just a half mile from the nearest hops farm.

“You can’t get much closer,” Skinner says.

“It’s a cool festival,” says Matt Therrien, who, along with his wife, Jennie, own nearby Lake Ann Brewing Co.“The festival is more organic than most. I don’t mean organic in a granola fashion, but that it’s the real deal. Other festivals have become contrived. When you go to a beer festival, you want to talk to people that make the beer. You want that connection to craft beer.”

While the festival celebrates the local harvest, weather conditions forced farmers to bring in their hops crops earlier this year, says Mike Moran, sales and marketing manager for MI Local Hops and Empire Hops Farm. About 260 acres of hops were harvested in the region this season, Moran says.

“The numbers are still coming, but we’ve had a great crop this year,” he says.

The only damper on the festival is the weather forecast, which is calling for rain showers.

“Inclement weather strengthens the resolve for people who are there,” Lake Ann’s Therrien says. “It weeds out the sissies, making for an even better time.”

Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Empire Hops Festival

Noon-10 p.m. Saturday

Front Street, downtown Empire

Admission $15 (includes glass and drink ticket)