Craft beer fuels Michigan hop binge

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Hop plants, such as these at K&K Farm in Suttons Bay, Michigan, grow to be about 18 feet tall. Image: Gary Howe

Hop plants, such as these at K&K Farm in Suttons Bay, Michigan, grow to be about 18 feet tall. Image: Gary Howe

By Josh Bender

Michigan’s hop industry has exploded into the nation’s fourth largest, according to a Michigan State University study.

Renewed hop production in Michigan began in response to a crop shortage in other states between 2007 and 2008 and to the growing popularity of Michigan’s craft beer, said Rob Sirrine, a Michigan State University hop expert and educator.

The number of craft breweries in Michigan increased from 105 in 2011 to 205 in 2015, according to the Brewers Association, a national organization for brewers. Michigan has the sixth most craft breweries and produces the 10th most craft beer of any state.

Michigan has gone from growing roughly 10 acres of hop plants in 2008 to 900 acres in 2016, said Sean Trowbridge, a hop farmer from Atlas Township, Michigan, and secretary for Hop Growers of Michigan.

While Michigan hop farmers planted about 900 acres, only about 650 acres will be mature enough to harvest this year, Sirrine said.

“Michigan is leading the charge outside the Pacific Northwest,” he said. Though Michigan is the fourth largest producer, Washington, Oregon and Idaho combine to grow 90 percent of American hop.

Hop adds bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt used to make beer and is a natural preservative, said Steve Berthel, head pub brewer at the New Holland Brewery in Holland, Michigan.

Michigan State University provides outreach, research and education for Michigan hop

New Holland Brewing Co. Head Pub Brewer Steve Berthel holds a glass of his Macatawa Stout, made from 100 percent Michigan ingredients. Image: Hannah Nyboe

New Holland Brewing Co. Head Pub Brewer Steve Berthel holds a glass of his Macatawa Stout, made from 100 percent Michigan ingredients, including the hops. Image: Hannah Nyboe

farmers, said Sirrine, an educator with the university’s Extension Hops Program. It leads the Great Lakes Hop Working Group, a multi-state collaborative effort to share resources between hop researchers and educators.

Michigan’s geography and topography help make it a great place for hop farming, Berthel said.

It shares its location between the 42nd and 45th parallel with central Europe, England and the Czech Republic, where hop has been grown for centuries.

The state’s sandy soil and long stretches of daylight are also good for hop farming, Sirrine said.

And growing it within the state is good for the state’s new breweries.

“Hop from overseas or even in Yakima in Washington State are going to dry out during the shipping process,” Berthel said. “Michigan hops are fresher and that makes for better tasting beer.”

Michigan’s unique climate and soil separate it from other hop hotbeds further west, he said. “Our beer isn’t going to taste like West Coast IPA because we have our own coast and our own flavor in these hops.”

Hops are grown on rope. Image: Gary Howe

Hops are grown on rope. Image: Gary Howe

Chinook Hop, a variety grown out west, is noted for the citrusy pine flavor it gives beer, Trowbridge said. Michigan Chinook Hop adds a bright tinge of pineapple.

Even among hop varities grown within Michigan there are differences in flavor depending on where they are grown, Berthel said. Hop is grown throughout the state.

This diversity is part of what keeps Michigan brewers using hop from their own state, said Michigan Brewers Guild president Scott Graham. “In time we will see the appeal of those unique characteristics far beyond Michigan.”

Venture capitalists are investing tens of millions of dollars into commercial hop farms in Michigan, Trowbridge said. Michigan hop farms once ranged from five to 30 acres, now some span hundreds of acres.

Michigan is home to between 60 and 90 commercial hop farms, Sirrine said.

The state is poised for growth among larger hop farms but fewer and fewer small and midsized operations will pop up because of the cost of starting to grow hop, he said.

A financially viable hop farm is at least 10 acres in size, he said. The costs to a career farmer seeking to start an operation of that size are about $305,000 between converting farmland to grow hop and buying equipment.

While the market for hops is good now, this growth could halt if consumers start to prefer less hoppy beer, he said. Decreased demand would result in a “race to the bottom”, where small and midsized growers won’t be able to lower their prices to compete with larger growers.

Michigan is far from the only hop producer in the Great Lakes Basin.

Ranked right after Michigan at number five is New York, with an estimated 300 acres strung for harvest in 2016, according to a report from USA Hops, a trade organization for American hop farmers. And Wisconsin sits just behind New York with an estimated 297 acres strung for harvest in 2016.

Together the states and provinces of the Great Lakes Basin will harvest an estimated 1,698 acres worth of hops in 2016, according to the report. Hops are grown in every state and province in the basin.

The report estimates the 2016 harvest in acres for the rest of the basin as Quebec, 123; Ontario, 90; Minnesota, 73; Ohio, 70; Indiana, 50; Illinois, 30 and Pennsylvania, 15.

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