There’s a good chance the hops in one of the Michigan craft beers you’re sipping this autumn came from a bucolic farm on the Leelanau Peninsula in the northwest corner of the mitten.
That farm would be the Michigan Hop Alliance outside Omena, about 45 minutes northwest of Traverse City. It is both a farm growing more than a dozen hop varieties on 30 acres, and a merchant that processes and supplies Michigan-grown, domestic and imported hops to nearly 4,000 brewers in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
“We pretty much sell to everyone in Michigan except Bell’s Brewery and New Holland Brewing Company because they’re so big,” said Brian Tennis, who established Michigan Hop Alliance with his wife, Amy, a decade ago.
That Michigan customer list reads like a who’s who of well-known brewers, including Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire, Rare Bird and the Filling Station in Traverse City, Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, and Storm Cloud Brewing Co. in Frankfurt.
“We pretty much sell to small to midsize brewers. We don’t deal with big brewers,” said Tennis, who was an IT guy and disc jockey in previous careers. “We don’t have enough hops to go around and the big brewers are buying from farmers in the Pacific Northwest.”
Hops, for the uninitiated, are cone-shaped flowers that add bitterness, aromatics, flavor complexity and stability to beer. Hops also act as a natural preservative.
Before Brian and Amy launched the Michigan Hop Alliance, they attempted to grow organic cherries and then organic hops on their Leelanau farm. The market for organic hops is almost nil, and the couple switched to conventional hops. The Michigan Hop Alliance was established as a hop cooperative, with farmers bringing their crops to a central location to pelletize, bag and market under one brand. The couple eventually bought out the other farmers.
Once one of the nation’s leaders in hop production, Michigan now ranks fourth, behind Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Those states have thousands of acres devoted to hops; Michigan has less than 1,000 acres. The re-emergence of hop farming in Michigan has occurred alongside the explosion of craft brewing, as well as the buy-local food movement.
The Arbor Brewing Co. is among the Michigan brewers tapping hops grown on the Leelanau Peninsula. The company uses the hops in its Tilted Earth Series, a rotating selection of IPAs, released seasonally, among other brews.
“From a brewing perspective, Michigan hops are better,” said Jon Wagner, head brewer for Arbor Brewing Co., noting Michigan-grown chinook hops have a flavor profile — pineapple and peach — he finds more pleasing than those of the Pacific Northwest.
The benefits of working with a local grower like Michigan Hop Alliance are many.
“We want to support Michigan companies. If we are working together, we can speak directly to the hop grower. I can say I’m looking for this or that quality … and I can visit the hop yard and ask them for a hop grown in a particular spot. It’s not a luxury a lot of brewers have. It’s nice to have that personal connection.”
While there have been some challenges, including falling prices, the 45th Parallel, that magical halfway mark between the equator and the North Pole, remains an ideal location for growing hops, just like wine grapes and cherries and other fruit, both successful crops from the region, Tennis said.
One of the initial challenges growers like Tennis had to overcome in establishing a hop farm was the lack of regional expertise and support.
“Nobody had grown hops in Michigan in 100 years. We kinda made it up as we went along. We didn’t have the equipment they had in the Northwest. We had to build our own hop dryer and use our own ingenuity. We started from scratch,” Tennis recalled. “Luckily, we had friends in the Northwest we could bounce questions off of.”
While the coronavirus has caused a few hiccups, Tennis has his eye on expanding processing and encouraging more hop farming in Michigan.
For Tennis, growing and selling hops is a labor of love.
“It’s funny. Farming is unlike anything in the world. Working in the hop industry and being around brewers is not really like working. It’s so much fun. It’s a lot more fun than working. That being said, when you finally got it figured out, life will come around and bite you in the ass.” ≈
BRIAN’S FAVORITE HOPS
Comet: A public variety, Comet was initially released in the 1970s but met with some resistance. Many brewers found comet hops too fruity. The variety all but disappeared from the beer scene, finding new life in recent years as an aroma variety in IPAs, wild ales and farmhouse beers. Tennis likes its grapefruit, stone fruit overtones, and comet grows extremely well in Michigan.
Summit: Although a proprietary hop, the Michigan Hop Alliance has the rights to grow this fairly new American varietal. A lot of big IPAs contain summit hops, which provide strong citrus and stone fruit flavors, as well as cannabis. The summit hop is the first semi-dwarf variety bred in the United States and is the only low trellis variety grown in this country.
Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based writer who enjoys covering Michigan’s beer, wine and spirits scene.