Michigan hop growers aim to break into the industry

Aug 7, 2017

Over the past four years one Michigan industry has been on the rise: hops. The state went from having roughly 300 acres to over one thousand.

The explosion of hops in the state is largely due to another growing industry in the state: craft beer. Hops are one of the four main ingredients to beer which includes yeast, grain, and water.

Rob Sirrine is with MSU Extension. He says Michigan now ranks fourth in the nation for hop production.

“We started out in 2008 with about a half acre out on old mission peninsula and steadily grown kind of mirroring the growth of craft breweries in Michigan.”

Michigan currently ranks sixth in the nation for craft breweries with roughly 222.

Sirrine says farmers are trying to capitalize on the craft brewery industry in the state by selling directly to them.

“So what you’ll find is brewers using Michigan hops for some of their recipes, for others they’re not. For wet hop ales it’s perfect because the hops are grown right here and they don’t have to pay for shipping from out west.”

But the reality is despite an explosion in hop growth most of Michigan’s largest breweries still rely on hops from out west.

“So this is our cooler where we store all of our hops, some fruit, we have a few barrels aging in here.”

This is Tony Hansen, the head brewer at Short’s Brewery, which is based out of Bellaire, Michigan. He shows me a variety of boxes filled with different kinds of hops, almost all of them have been shipped in from Washington.

“You’ll see most of these hops here are coming from YCH. We also buy hops from HAAS, Crosby Farms, but mostly YCH and that’s all coming out of Yakima Valley.”

Hansen says they need tens of thousands of hops a year and they need those hops to be identical in quality and kind to make beer flavors that are consistent.

“So until the volume starts coming up and the consistency starts coming up, the quality comes up, we’ll probably continue buying from the larger companies.”

Hansen says they’ve had all kinds of hop growers show up at their brewery.

“You know I’ll have someone show up that has like five pounds out in their car right now like “hey can you make beer with this.” And like sure, I could but normally we need 100 times more of that and I have no idea where those hops came from or what they are.. You have no lab analysis, I don’t even know if it’s the variety you say it is.”

Hansen takes me out through Short’s bottling line, which churns out roughly three thousand cases of beer a day. The bottles flow around the arms of the machine, freshly filled and waiting for a label.

Off to the side of the bottling line is the lab where beer scientists, that’s the actual job title, test beers to make sure they’ll stay up to Short’s standards even after months of sitting on store shelves.

“When you’re packaging it and shipping it out you’ve gotta know that it’s 100 percent bulletproof. You’re not only gambling with your reputation you could make someone sick. It also just helps with consistency which is another thing you know.. I just keep drilling it. We need consistent ingredients but also the consistency of the finished product. We want every Huma, Soft Parade, Space Rock, Locals we want everything to taste the same no matter what time of year it is.”

Shorts is only a mid sized brewery in Michigan, making roughly 35 thousand barrels a year compared to a brewery like Bell's which churns out over 300 thousand barrels of beer annually.

Tony Hansen says a once a brewery is mass producing a beer it’s important that each flavor is consistent - which means hop growers have to produce a crop that is reliable both in terms of size and flavor. Michigan hop growers just aren’t there yet.

“But I’ve seen the hop quality come up quite a bit in the last few years. I’m very confident about the Michigan scene. I’m hoping within the next few years they’ll be right on par.”

“There’s a lot of talk about quality in the hop industry and also in craft beer and it starts with the hops.”

This is Marc Muran, the Sales and Marketing Manager for MI Local, a hop farm in Williamsburg Michigan. The company harvests just over 300 acres of hops every year, and Muran says they’re trying to meet the need they see from bigger breweries.

“I think there was a calling for a farm like ours that was focused on high quality processing, high quality pelletizing, large volume growing for specific varieties that Michigan growers, Midwest growers, and brewers could rely on consistently.”

Muran says MI Local is the largest hop farm East of the Rocky Mountains. Michigan is ideally placed for hops growing: hops grow between the latitudes of 35 and 55 putting Michigan smack in the middle of this area.

But it’s not just the acreage that makes the MI Local important.

“The processing facility is a fifteen million dollar facility. It’s got a 30-thousand square foot harvest building. It’s a fully automated system, a fully automated building.”

What makes the processing facility so important - and so expensive - is that it needs to be able to turn hops at the exact right moment in their growth cycle to get the quality brewers are looking for.

“Once those hops come back from our lab reports and they are in the wheelhouse of where that specific variety is averaged to be, for instance a centennial needs to be within 6-8 percent alpha acid, we need to harvest.”

Muran says they have a short window of days to get hops off the vine and pelletize them - a process that turns hops into pellets for brewers - so they have the right specifications for brewers.

An added layer of complexity is that certain strains of hop have been patented and brewers can only buy them specifically from the growers that have the patent.

“There’s a lot of varieties that brewers use here locally and throughout the midwest and on the east coast that you can only purchase from Washington, or Oregon, or New Zealand, or Australia. And those are some pretty great hops.”

It’s a large and involved process and Muran says it’s important that Michigan breweries are interested in supporting an up and coming hop operation.

“The tough thing when you originally get into growing and harvesting you’ve got a lot of breweries that are in contract already with large contractors out in Washington, Washington is hops country. I know a lot of breweries locally are tied into contracts, some up to five years, on specific varieties just to make sure they were locked into their recipes.”

But Muran says many local brewers have bought hops from them and the the Michigan Hop Quality Group, which has representatives from Founders and Bell's.

“They help us put the right processes in place to really be on top of food quality.”

John Mallet is the Director of Operations for Bell's Brewery. He says having a local source for hops is important.

“Really we’re very interested in supporting and helping to elevate the Michigan hop industry. You know we’ve seen drought in the Northwest. Having assurity of supply being able to spread that risk across more areas is definitely in our best interest and we’re really interested in helping to support that.”

Tony Hansen of Short’s Brewery says having a local source helps them get hops faster but it also creates a community.

“The other thing that’s great about it is that relationship. It’s really cool for the growers the processors to hang out where the beer is being made.”

But for now the place that Michigan hops have found their home is in the beers of smaller breweries.

Ben Slocum is one of the co-founders of Beards Brewery in Petoskey. He says they’ve used local hops in several of their beers.

“So when it comes to ingredients we get quite a few local hops from here we just worked with MI Local hops with their Michigan Copper which is a very unique strain to the area. We get some hops from Washington because unfortunately there are some strains you have to go there for, same with Australia and New Zealand, but we’re sourcing everything that we can from Michigan from Michigan.”

As the Michigan hop industry continues to expand, growers are hopeful it will become an essential part of Michigan Breweries.

But one thing is for sure, all sectors of the industry take a special pleasure in cracking a michigan beer made with Michigan hops.