The hop industry in Michigan has quietly grown into a serious supplier of that crucial beer ingredient.
Eight years ago, Brian Tennis and his wife, Amy, were among the first to plant commercial acreage in the Mitten state. They now run the Michigan Hop Alliance.
Since then, commercial hop growers have grown from three or four acres to nearly 1,000 acres with no slowdown in sight, as money starts to flow into farms. They aren't growing anywhere near the tens of thousands of acres grown by farms in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, but Michigan farmers collectively rank fourth in U.S. hop growing and in the top ten globally now.
Quality was an issue when Tennis and other early adopters starting growing, but following investments in technology and processing, brewers are finally confident in the Michigan-grown varieties.
All of New Holland Brewing Co.’s pub-only beers are brewed with Michigan ingredients, including hops, and Founders Brewing Co. used Michigan-grown hops in its Harvest Ale in 2016.
“We invested in the equipment and the technology, that was hard and expensive,” Tennis said. “Up until recently, Michigan was unproven, but now we’re convinced we can grow world-class hops. The product we’re sending out is just as good, or better, than the hops coming out of the Pacific Northwest.”
The product we’re sending out is just as good, or better, than the hops coming out of the Pacific Northwest.”
Sitting along the 45th Parallel, Michigan is in the perfect spot for growing hops from across the globe. Other top hop growing regions also straddle the same latitude, from Germany and the Czech Republic to Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest.
With the ideal growing conditions, such as day length and heat, and plenty of water, Michigan now grows nearly 30 hop varieties commercially. Michigan acres are now yielding nearly the industry standards in terms of hops per acre, and in many cases the hops aren’t far off the expected hop characteristics.
The Michigan Hop Alliance’s top varieties are among the most popular in the brewing industry: Cascade, Chinook and Centennial. Tennis said analysis has been performed with the hops compared to the large Pacific Northwest growers and the differences are negligible.
“If someone has a flagship beer relying on those hops, you don’t want them to use these and be radically different,” Tennis said. “If they’re building a brand with a flavor profile, they need hops that are close to that.”
While many of the main varieties grown in Michigan don’t stray far from the same types grown in other areas, there are a few with strong differences.
Tennis noted bittering and aroma hops like Brewers Gold, Galena and Crystal as hops with drastically different profiles when grown in Michigan.
“There’s something to say about the terroir and growing conditions in Michigan,” Tennis said. “There are certainly differences in some of these hops. We get a lot more floral here than some of the harsher pine notes they can get up in the Pacific Northwest.”
We get a lot more floral here than some of the harsher pine notes they can get up in the Pacific Northwest.”
Michigan growers can obtain most strains of hops, except for some of the more notable proprietary strains such as Simcoe, Citra, and Mosaic. In the Michigan industry, there’s a lack of time and money, though. Pacific Northwest growers have had more of those in the past and used them to develop new varieties.
Despite the lack of access to the rights of proprietary hops, or time and money to develop them, Tennis said he’s trying to grow hops that are unique and overlooked. What Michigan does have is the flexibility to experiment with all sorts of established hops to see which ones work and what nuances they might have compared to other growing regions.
“We’re trying to grow whatever our neighbor isn’t growing,” Tennis said. “We’re trying to grow the weirdest stuff out there. We can afford three or four acres for a weird experiment where in the Pacific Northwest they have to plant thousands of acres at the same time. They don’t have time to dink around with an acre or two.”
We’re trying to grow the weirdest stuff out there.”
As a weed, hops are native to North America, and Tennis said there are plenty of Michigan varieties found in the wild. Michigan farms are experimenting with the wild hops they find in their own proverbial back yards. Unfortunately, many wild varieties don’t yield enough or taste awful, Tennis said.
Tennis hopes to have a proprietary Michigan variety or two available for sale next year.
No matter how close varieties grown in Michigan are to their natural regions, the nuances do lend themselves well to the craft industry.
Tennis mentioned his planting of the Czech noble hop Saaz. “It will be very different because our soil and general climate is different,” he said. “I think that unique profile will do well with the craft guys, who they like experimental stuff to help set themselves apart, even when using a widely used hop."
“But for the most part, most of the hops we’re growing have just subtle nuances compared to the same type grown elsewhere. “There generally aren’t startling differences.”