More Green Ahead, Say Hops Farmers
Nov. 2, 2016
The craft beer movement continues to have a significant impact on the regional economy, now extending to farmers and businesses focused on local hops. And though some might see a saturation point in craft beer, those hops growers are forecasting more green ahead.
Consider Dan Wiesen of Empire Hops, one of the first on the scene. “We started nine years ago. Michigan State did a seminar in Traverse City for hop growing,” Wiesen recalls. “There was a shortage worldwide and prices had spiked. We grew apples but had some low land that wasn’t good for fruit, so we gave it a shot.”
Wiesen says this year’s harvest was good to very good, depending on the variety and the farm. “The weather was very good during the growing season and good for harvest,” he says. “We were going 24/7 for 30 days. Everybody was pretty happy.” He says he expects future harvests to improve as farmers grow more familiar with the crop.
Northern Michigan’s location -- straddling the 45th parallel -- and the region’s access to plenty of water make it ideal for growing hops. In fact, a century ago Michigan was a prime producer of hops. Downy mildew decimated the crops and soon western states were the only hops producers.
Today, though Washington, Oregon, and Idaho still produce 90 percent of the nation’s crop, Michigan’s efforts are now back on the map, thanks to modern fungicide treatments, the craft beer boom, and entrepreneurism.
Two years ago, when MI Local Hops CEO Jason Warren went to a hops-growing convention, he says Michigan was mostly ignored. The following year, the state’s efforts were seen as a curiosity. “This year we were on the map,” says Warren.
MI Local Hops is the largest hops operation east of the Rocky Mountains. MI Local Hops is located on 400 acres in Williamsburg. Through a joint venture with Wiesen’s Empire Hops, which specializes in custom farming and custom trellis installation, the two businesses managed almost 350 acres and harvested over 250 acres this year.
Brian Tennis of Omena was another early adapter. He and his wife Amy founded New Mission Organics in 2005 and were among the first hop farmers in Michigan, planting their first acre on the Leelanau Peninsula in 2008. Says Tennis of the potential for more growth, “There are 300-plus breweries (in Michigan), and they want to support local farms and local products,” he says.
Tennis’ company became the Michigan Hop Alliance, which this year merged its operation with StreetCar Partners, LLC. The Michigan Hop Alliance recently landed a $248,000 USDA grant -- which the company matched -- to further develop the industry.
“We sell to over 400 brewers around the U.S. and could probably double that. We want to sell more in Michigan. I’m pretty much a one-man show here, growing and processing and selling,” says Tennis.
Not only is the number of breweries increasing in Michigan and beyond, craft brewers use far more hops than do the large-scale commercial breweries. Large breweries primarily use bitter hops to mitigate the sweetness of the malt. According to Warren, a beer like Budweiser uses about a third of a pound of hops per barrel. Craft brewers use aromatic hops for flavoring purposes, and require more, as much as two pounds per barrel. “The funkier the hops, the funkier the beer,” says Tennis.
Going forward, Wiesen and Tennis say northern Michigan hops farmers have some additional factors on their side: drought conditions in the western states and Michigan’s central proximity that will mean lower shipping costs for most brewers.
They say they also believe there there’s yet more growth on tap for beer in general. Though it might seem to be virtually everywhere in America, the truth is the U.S. ranks far outside the top ten in per capita beer consumption. It’s behind not only expected beer-drinking countries like Germany and Austria, but also Seychelles, Namibia, Spain and Gabon.
Besides, as Tennis says, “my thought is there is always room for another quality brewery. It’s a great time to be in the industry. A great time to be a farmer.”