Pot’s Bitter Cousin Hops Thrives in Michigan as Craft Beers Boom
Brian Tennis, a former organic cherry farmer in Omena, Michigan, wasn’t decimated by the late spring frosts that wiped out almost 90 percent of the state’s apple and cherry crops last year. The hops on his farm weathered the cold snap well.
Demand for hops from a burgeoning craft beer industry, coupled with greater risks to fruit crops from more extreme Midwest weather, has led Michigan farmers to devote 250 acres (100 hectares) to the processed flower that gives ales and stouts their bitter bite. Five years ago, there was next to none.
“You can do everything right with cherries, and the two weeks before harvest have a really bad rain event and lose your crop,” said Tennis, who owns a 30-acre farm about 300 miles (480 kilometers) northwest of Detroit and is also a director of the Michigan Hop Alliance. “Hops can get frosted several times and it’ll keep coming back.”
Hop buds, a distant relative to marijuana, and the 20-foot-high trellises on which they typically grow are gaining ground in the region more commonly known as the Cherry Capital of the World. Michigan is home to 140 craft breweries, sixth-most in the country, and Grand Rapids, the state’s second-largest city, was named Beer City USA 2013 by Examiner.com.
Along with states including New York and Colorado, Michigan has become one of the country’s fastest-growing new regions for hops, said Robert Sirrine, a Michigan State University Extension educator who runs hops-growing seminars and tours in Leelanau County.
With many of Michigan’s breweries focused on buying local, and the scant acreage devoted to the green, cone-shaped buds, farmers also are able to command prices more than four times higher than the national average, Alex Wiesen, manager at Empire Hops Farm, said in an interview.
He sells his hops for $14 a pound to cover costs, more than $10 above the average nationwide price of $3.27 a pound in 2012, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Saugatuck Brewing Co. in western Michigan introduced a Michigan Wheat ale in April, sourced entirely with Michigan-grown wheat, barley and hops, said Kerry O’Donahue, vice president of marketing at the brewery. The 80-barrel brew was promoted by Michigan’s statewide tourism campaign and O’Donahue said the company plans to continue it next summer.
“We’d like to use as much as we can of Michigan ingredients, as long as we can get them,” he said. Michigan hops are “definitely more expensive. We kind of just bit the bullet on that.”
The hops industry is steadily growing, with growers more worried about fungus and bugs than shocks in weather, Sirrine said. Record highs above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius) were recorded in Michigan in March, followed by frosty spring nights and a summer drought. State climatologist Jeff Andresen said that while the drought was unusual, spring warm-ups are starting earlier from year to year.
Apple and cherry blossoms, which develop into the fruit, can die after just 30 minutes when the temperature dips to 25 degrees Fahrenheit in a late spring frost. Hops flowers can endure about four hours at that temperature, Wiesen said. At least one local business that relied on cherry-themed food in Traverse City had to import cherries from Poland to meet tourist demand last season.
“Certainly it’s a red flag,” Andresen said. “Ultimately there’s relatively more risk for growers with time.”
The transition to beer crops is expensive for both experienced farmers and rookie growers, running about $12,000 an acre for equipment and plants, MSU’s Sirrine said.
The crop is also labor-intensive. Flowers need to be picked, dried and ground into pellets before shipping to brewers. If the pellets are too wet, they can rot. If they’re heated too much, they can lose the aromatic character needed for beer, he said.
The costs didn’t stop organic cherry farmer turned hops booster Tennis, he said. He entered the hops business for his love of beer, saying that he and his wife spent the extra buck for a good brew “even when we were poor.” After five years, he expects to turn his first profit this season.
“We morphed into hops because it’s easier for a small farm to make money doing hops than putting in a hundred acres of cherries,” said Tennis, who runs New Mission Organics with his wife in Omena. “You can plant hops where it wouldn’t be suitable for stone fruit or grapes.”
Buying hops from Michigan means there’s less risk of spoilage of fresh, wet hops, and transportation is less expensive for the state’s brewers, Sirrine said.
Hops acreage has increased 18 percent nationwide in the past two years, and as craft beer gains popularity, there’s been a shift toward the more aromatic strains preferred by craft brewers, said Dave Losh, a USDA statistician. That increases demand because craft beer uses many more times the amount of hops as traditional brews.
Indeed, Bell’s Brewery, the largest brewer in Michigan, sources the majority of its hops from the Pacific Northwest, Germany and the Czech Republic, said John Mallett, director of operations at the brewery near Kalamazoo, which was the runner-up to Grand Rapids for the craft beer city title.
Bell’s, known for its orange-labeled Oberon ale, has bought small quantities of Michigan hops for years, and that amount may increase if the quality and prices of local hops become more consistent as the industry develops, Mallett said.
Those sorts of promises are driving newcomers such as Blake Mazurek, a teacher in Grand Rapids, who began growing hops as a side business last year at his wife’s family’s 80-acre farm 100 miles north of the city.
He was able to harvest 27 pounds in his first season from 2 1/2 acres. He’s converted part of the 100-year-old farm’s dairy barn into a miniature on-site brewery. Next year, he said he plans to plant barley on some of the unused acreage as well.
Brewers and beer lovers are “choosing to buy a local, premium product,” Mazurek said. “I can certainly see myself growing many, many more hops. I’ll have a beer farm.”
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