Although Michigan has earned a spot among the nation’s top producers of hops after a growth spurt in the last five years, 2018 served as a moment of reckoning for the state’s growers, whose overall acreage declined.
The state remains the fourth-largest cultivator of hops, although still lags well behind the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S., where almost 96 percent of the nearly 58,000 acres of hops are grown in the country.
The total acreage dedicated to growing hops in Michigan tripled from 2014 to 2017, peaking at 810 acres. But the state’s industry contracted about 7.4 percent last year, shedding 60 acres of hops production, according to a recent report from Hop Growers of America Inc.
Bryan Posthumus, a partner at Lowell-based West Michigan Hopyards LLC, thinks most of the decline stems from the loss of small farms or hobby growers in the region.
“The industry in Michigan was flooded with a lot of people that had no business experience, no agriculture experience, and just really liked beer,” he said. “They threw in a quarter acre, they threw in two acres, or they threw in three acres of hops in their backyard or whatever they had.”
Growers with less than 10 acres of hops have slowly recognized that the yield may not be worth the effort, according to Posthumus, who processes about 33 acres of hops per year.
“It’s an exceptionally expensive, laborious hobby if you’re just doing it as a hobby,” he said. “In order to do it professionally or at a commercial scale, you need to have a lot more than that two to five acres of hops.”
The production of hops, a perennial climbing vine with an acidic, cone-shaped flower that adds bitter, floral, fruity, or citrus flavors to beer, is concentrated in moist temperate climates. The introduction and expansion of hops farms in Michigan coincided with the statewide boom of the craft brewing industry.
In 2018, Michigan brewers sold more than 636,000 barrels of beer, about six times the volume sold a decade earlier, according to industry data.
The many varieties of hops produce different aromas and levels of bitterness in the beer, playing well with the experimental culture of craft brewers, according to Brian Tennis, owner of Omena-based Michigan Hop Alliance LLC, located on Northern Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula.
“Brewers are constantly pushing the envelope,” he told MiBiz.
While historically popular varieties like Cascade, Chinook and Centennial hops still dominate the market, they are no longer commanding price premiums, Tennis said.
“What’s driving the market right now is the unique and upcoming hops,” he said.
The market is pushing Michigan growers to predict and invest in fields of new, unique hops that will inspire brewers. The problem: Not all of them have taken off and been successful.
“It’s risky because if you’re betting on an experimental that you’ve never grown before, you just don’t know if there’s going to be the demand for it,” Tennis said. “You’ve got to plant it to see if there’s demand, but if there’s no demand, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
The declining market for specific varieties or a lack of demand means that growers over-planted certain hops, which may take several years to mature. As a result, growers and brokers in Michigan are sitting on hundreds of thousands of pounds of years-old inventory with few interested buyers, according to sources.
“Ideally, you’re selling your inventory as soon as possible and you’re meeting demand perfectly right up until when your next hops are ready to be sold,” said Rob Sirrine, a Leelanau County-based community food systems educator in the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University Extension. “Well, that isn’t the case, because not every brewer is contracted, so some are buying on the spot market and growers or brokers are trying not to play that game as well.”
One option that growers and brokers have is to convert some of their high alpha acid hops — which offer maximum bittering potential per ounce — into an extract for bittering, which can remain in storage almost indefinitely, according to Sirrine.
In 2018, the Citra variety ended the longtime reign of Cascade as the most grown hop strain in the country, according to the Hop Growers of America report. Unfortunately for Michigan growers, five of the top ten hottest hops in the country — including Citra — are proprietary. The patents and trademarks for them are chiefly held by growers in the Pacific Northwest who aren’t interested in partnerships to grow them on Michigan soil.
However, new public varieties — such as a strain called Cashmere — are being created from a statewide breeding program, according to Sirrine. Comet, a public crop that was released in the 1970s and thought to be “too aromatic,” has since surged in popularity and become fashionable for dry-hopping ales and IPAs, he said.
“There are opportunities,” Sirrine said. “They’re adapting in different ways, all the way from propagators that are doing some of their own breeding work to just really getting out there and pounding the pavement selling their hops, not just in Michigan but across the country.”
A grant-funded program at MSU is currently using viticulture as a model to research environmental factors that affect the characteristics of different varieties of hops.
“You can take the same variety of hops and grow it in all those different places and you’re going to get likely a different flavor profile,” Sirrine said. “We’re trying to hone in on that … to find and market unique aromas that are associated with different growing areas in Michigan.”
West Michigan Hopyards has been developing its own proprietary hops for nearly a decade, starting with a mix of 4,000 different strains and landing on a handful of crops that are scientifically suited to brewers’ tastes and Michigan weather.
“We’ve chosen to take a different approach at West Michigan Hopyards,” Posthumus said. “We’re developing a program to introduce proprietary hops that are born and bred here in Michigan that can compete with the Citras and the Mosaics of the world.”
The company has released four new varieties so far this year and expects to release “three to four more” before 2020.
The company chose the varieties based on aromatics, oils, alpha and beta contents, drought resistance, yields and “sensory analyses” with brewers from across the state. Posthumus thinks that these varieties could someday replace the lost hops acreage.
“There are some things that on the surface really might paint a more bleak picture of the industry than it really is,” he said. “Flavors and profiles and the tastes of consumers change on a regular basis, so a couple of varieties got over-planted. Those are the ones that are coming out right now, but (hops) will be going back in probably in a couple of years. I’ll bet my bottom dollar on that.”
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