For decades, farms in Michigan have raised hops to create that distinctive bitter flavor in your beer. Nearly all of those farms have been tiny -- just one or two acre plots. Now, though, that model is changing, fast. As the market for craft beer in Michigan keeps exploding, hops farms are growing, too. And they're changing what it means for a beer to be truly "made in Michigan."
Growing hops is nothing like raising a vegetable garden in your backyard. When you look at the five-acre plot in Marty Moga’s backyard in Marshall, it’s easy to see why.
There’s a lot to take in. 20-foot wooden poles dot the landscape. Ropes stretch from the top of each pole down to the earth, creating a pattern of giant V’s stretching back hundreds of yards. Soon, hops will be climbing up each one.
"As you can see, now we’re down to these centennials. Much further along this time of year," Moga explains as he kneels down and holds a centennial hop plant in his hand. Moga says that over the next few weeks, his small team will make trips to each of the 5,300 plants out here, guiding each one on its way to the top.
The farm, called High Five Hops, has only been operating for a few years. But Moga already tends these crops like his life depends on it.
"They’re my babies! I’ve got 5,300 babies out here," Moga says. "Out here, I can take care of all of them and take care of them all. A hop likes to see his farmer every day. And on this scale, ours do. They see us. We see them. We know what they need."
For decades, this was how hop farming looked in Michigan. A farmer tending to only an acre or two. But that’s changing. And it all has to do with craft beer.
"In the early nineties, there were only two craft breweries in Michigan," explains Michigan State University Extension Educator Rob Sirrine. "Now we’re up over 200. And these craft breweries use quite a lot more hops than the mega breweries do. You’re talking one-and-a-half pounds of hops per barrel. Which is probably 10 times more than they use in a Miller Lite."
The new demand means that hop farms are suddenly getting a lot bigger. The state has around 400 acres of hops right now, but that’s set to more than double in the next two years. The investment group WSJ Investments recently announced a plan to build a farm in Traverse City that will reach 400 acres by 2017. And the 30-acre Hop Head Farms in Hickory Corners is growing by nearly 150 acres after purchasing a property in Berrien County.
WSJ Investments' Jason Warren says the thinking behind his investment was simple: supply and demand.
“So there’s very much a want of brewers to buy hops from Michigan, but there’s really not a viable alternative for them yet of a size that makes sense for them to commit,” Warren explains.
But there’s a whole lot more to the growth of hops than just a few new farms. The best example of that is the giant mechanical beast sitting at Hop Head Farms.
"This is Griselda, the grey battle maiden," explains Jeff Steinman, one of the farm's owners. Griselda is their two-story-tall hop harvester, capable of gobbling up nearly 500 long vines of hops every hour. Jeff's wife and co-owner, Bonnie, named the machine.
"It means Grey Battle Maiden in German," says Bonnie. "Because before they had processing equipment, they had hop maidens pick the hops by hand. So Griselda looks like a tank, like you’re going to battle. And we did a lot of battling before we could even open this place for operation, so we felt it was fitting."
Griselda is more than just a fun farm nickname. The extensive hop processing systems at farms like Hop Head have allowed Michigan farmers to help meet the new demand from breweries.
Most breweries want local hops. But they have conditions: for most beers, they won’t just take hops straight from the vine. They need them processed and in a consistent supply. Which most small hop farms can’t guarantee, because they don’t have the equipment.
"Yeah, it’s difficult," says MSU's Sirrine. "It includes drying. It includes bailing. Pelletizing. Proper packaging, storage, food safety. You’ve gotta process them at a really high quality to compete with the folks out west."
But farms like Hop Head have that equipment. So here’s their solution: they buy hops from the smaller farms, process them, and then sell them to breweries. The system has created a supply – not huge, but consistent. And breweries are buying in.
"So Rupert’s Brew House uses almost all our hops," says Jeff Steinman. "Gonzo’s in Kalamazoo uses a majority of our hops. So, some are willing to commit nearly 100 percent. Others, they’ll try beer by beer."
Now, the hops are reaching larger breweries, like Founder’s and Bell’s. New Holland Brewing even announced that by 2016, all of the specialty beers at its pub will be brewed with Michigan hops. So, combined with the processors and the pelletizers, the new, larger hop farms are just the latest step in Michigan’s growing beer economy. And most of it is happening before you even take a sip.