February 23, 2024

After a 100-year Absence, Michigan’s Hop Crop is Coming Back Strong

The comeback kid
By Ross Boissoneau | Oct. 21, 2017

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, it’s no longer “Hop on Pop.” It’s now hops on top.

Given the continuing explosion of microbreweries and tap houses across the state and the region, it seems only logical that the production of hops would increase as well. And that’s just what is happening, as the number and size of hops fields seems to increase almost as quickly as the number of craft brews being produced.

It’s just one of the reasons for the crop’s resurgence, which is making a comeback. Few realize it, but Michigan used to be one of the country’s largest purveyors of hops, said Mike Moran, sales and marketing manager at MI Local Hops in Acme.

“Hops was big 100 years ago, but downy mildew wiped it out basically overnight,” he said.

That’s when western states took over. Washington, Oregon and Idaho are the country’s top hops producers, together accounting for more than 90 percent of the nation’s crop. Now that modern fungicide treatments are helping mitigate the mildew problem, Michigan is slowly regaining its place among the leaders.

MI Local Hops is doing its part. The largest hop operation east of the Rockies harvested its second crop this year.

“We had a successful yield; our numbers are up,” said Moran, noting that the 80 percent yield compared with last year’s 65 percent is typical of a second year.

Moran said from a growing and marketing aspect, it’s important to produce a variety for which there is a demand, but not one everyone else is growing.

While Cascade is used by a number of brewers, “Everybody grows Cascade,” he said.

Many of the hops producers out west have proprietary varieties, which growers in Michigan have not yet had the time to produce.

The burgeoning hops market is bucking a national trend. Within the last five years, beer sales have decreased, peaking in 2013 at 1,520,080,941 cases, then plummeting to 1,501,921,661 in 2014. Last year’s sales show a rebound: 1,515,357,807, the best since 2013.

While total beer sales have lagged, the fact that craft beers have exploded is very good news for the hops industry. Craft brewers typically use more hops in their recipes than do the large scale commercial breweries, which primarily use bitter hops to mitigate the sweetness of the malt. While a beer such as Budweiser would use about a third of a pound of hops per barrel, craft brewers use as much as two pounds per barrel. That’s because they use aromatic hops for flavoring purposes.

It’s not just the craft breweries that are driving the surge. If sales domestically are flat, overseas the thirst for beer is growing. Moran said he is looking at other countries, such as South Korea and China, as markets for his hops.

“That’s going to be a big part,” he said.

While MI Local Hops is the largest area producer, it’s certainly not alone. Brian and Amy Tennis of Omena were among the first hop farmers in Michigan, planting their first acre on the Leelanau peninsula in 2008. Today their operation is known as the Michigan Hop Alliance.

Dan Wiesen of Empire Hops planted his first hops around that time, too. He attended a Michigan State University seminar on growing hops, which piqued his interest. At the time there was a shortage worldwide and prices had spiked. He had some low land that wasn’t suitable for growing apples, his preferred crop, but it turned out to be perfect for hops.

Not everything in hopland is perfect. Some hop yards this year did experience downy mildew, which Moran says can impact hops processing. Fortunately for him, none were at MI Local Hops, leading to its increased yield. 

Another advantage of the local crop is the ability of brewers to use green hops for wet hop beers. Brian Confer, brewer and co-owner of Stormcloud Brewing, annually brews Fresh Hop Harvest Ale, featuring 90 pounds of Cascade, Chinook and Galena hops from Michigan Hop Alliance.

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