The craft beer industry in Michigan has been growing at a rapid pace. But perhaps not as fast as the number of acres of hops being planted.
In 2015, over 400 acres of hop farms could be found throughout Michigan. That number is projected to grow to over 1,000 acres this year, says J. Robert Sirrine, Michigan State University Extension community food systems educator.
The average investment by growers is near $12,000 to $15,000 an acre. “It’s a very high value crop, which requires major up front capital investments,” Sirrine says. “Consumers will pay more because it is a local product, but the quality has to be there. Many hop growers in Michigan are producing very high-quality hops now.”
The majority of hop farms in the state are in northwest Michigan, while the majority of farms in the U.S. are in the northwest. The state of Washington has over 32,000 acres of hops, Oregon has over 6,000 acres, and Idaho has close to 5,000.
In recent years, many small hop farms have sprouted. One Michigan producer is Hopyards of Kent, in Greenville on the west side of the state. There, during the autumn months, when hop cones — the cone-shaped flower used to flavor beers — are harvested, field hands begin working the farm’s 14 acres at the crack of dawn.
As the workers wind through the tall, willowy architecture of the hop farm, their fingers begin to smell of the bitter scent of beer.
During harvest season, field workers collect the hop cones using a harvesting machine, and at dusk the next set of workers arrive to monitor the drying process of the cones through the night.
Hopyards of Kent was launched in 2011 by Pam Miller, who retired from a client sales job, along with her husband, John, and son-in-law, Ian Mortensen.
At the time, Pam says they were one of the biggest hop farms in Michigan.
These days they are facing more competition. About a year ago an investment group in Traverse City announced plans to break ground on a 400-acre hop farm in 2016 called MI Local Hops. Most hop farms in Michigan hit between 5 and 15 acres.
For Miller and her family, the influx of possible rivals most likely won’t heavily affect their farm. Hopyards of Kent sells their hops to small craft breweries in the Grand Rapids area as well as larger beer producers such as Founders Brewing Co.
But they also “export.” Miller says they sell to over 10 states and as far away as Thailand. “We are a complete entity as a grower, harvester, and processor. We have over 30 growers come through our facility that don’t have the infrastructure to process the hops themselves.”
When the hops are processed they are typically turned into pellet form to be distributed.
But for breweries who wish to make a harvest ale in the fall, a local farm that can quickly deliver unprocessed fresh hops will always be essential.
“In the fall we provide Founders and Rockford Brewing Company with fresh hops that are picked at 5 a.m.,” Miller says. “We have (hops) at their back receiving docks by 8:30 a.m. that same morning.”
The hops, still in their cone shape, have to be delivered and put into the brewers’ tank within 12 hours of picking.
While small farms can provide individual services such as that, large farms are able to produce more product at a lower cost.
Sean Trowbridge, co-owner of Top Hops Farm in Goodrich, says when the coming commercial farms begin to reach their peak production capabilities, commodity prices will have to be more competitive.
“Bigger farms will be able to do things more cost efficient,” Trowbridge says. “But brewers are already paying a premium price for local Michigan hops. The majority of hops used in Michigan come from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Those prices are much lower than local hops.”
Trowbridge says brewers recognize the value of local hops, regardless of the higher price, and he believes those same brewers will also recognize the value of buying from a small farm.
“A middle-sized farm like ours with about 10 to 15 acres can pay more attention to detail,” he says. “It’s easier to scout smaller acres of hops than it is to scout 100 acres on a regular basis.”
“It’s a very fragile commodity,” Miller says. “You can spend 120 days growing it, but destroy it within 12 hours if not dried properly. During harvest season my husband basically lives at the barn, and only comes home for dinner. We always have people at the barn 24/7, even through the night.”
Trowbridge says the corporate hop farms, while adding competition, will not doom the small farms. He says all of the hop farms in Michigan right now would not even be able to supply all of the breweries in the state with enough hops.