“Michigan has gone from nonexistent in the industry to now the fourth largest hops state in the country, and the only state outside the Pacific Northwest that is producing high-quality and commercial-scale hops,” said John Mallett, director of operations at Bell’s Brewing Co., Michigan’s second-largest craft brewer. Bell’s buys Centennial hops from Michigan farmers, used in its Two Hearted Ale.
With about 350 craft breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs, Michigan ranks fourth in the nation, behind California, Washington and Colorado. There were 7,346 craft breweries in the United States in 2018, according to a report released this month by the Brewers Association. American craft brewers produced more than 25.9 million barrels of beer in 2018, with a 13.9 percent share of the U.S. beer market.
…Last year Michigan hops farmers harvested 400 to 600 tons of hops. Michigan trails only the big growers in the Northwest: Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The United States is the world’s largest producer of hops, and 70 percent of the crop comes from Washington, home to more than 32,000 acres of hops.
“If you look at total U.S. hop production, Michigan is a little blip, but we’d be in the top 12 if Michigan were its own country,” said Rob Sirrine, senior extension educator with Michigan State University’s Extension Service. “We almost grow what New Zealand grows as a country. It’s small but it’s not insignificant on the world stage.”
Michigan, it turns out, has an ideal climate for growing hops, with the right mix of warm days and cool nights. The state’s well-drained soil also is beneficial. The 45th parallel, which cuts an invisible line across the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, is particularly conducive. The 45th parallel also runs through the Pacific Northwest and Germany, a traditional hop-growing region.
It’s that same combination of climate and soil that also makes parts of Michigan ripe for growing wine grapes, another of the state’s rich agricultural industries.
Among those growing hops along Michigan’s share of the 45th is Brian Tennis, who was one of the first hop farmers in the state. He planted his first acre on the Leelanau Peninsula in 2008.
His company has evolved to become the Michigan Hop Alliance, cultivating about 30 acres of hops, as well as contracting with other farmers. Tennis grows 15 varieties, including Cashmere, Centennial and Triple Pearl hops, and also has expanded to include processing facilities.
…his long list of customers includes well-known Michigan brewers such as Short’s Brewing Co. in Bellaire and Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids.
“We sell to just about everybody in Michigan,” Tennis said. “We’re now starting to explore Mexico and South America. We had to expand outside Michigan. You can’t keep bugging the same breweries over and over.”
The industry’s success has not been without overcoming a few hurdles. Popular hops varieties like Cascade dropped in prices significantly in 2016-2017, largely because of oversaturation in the market. Some farmers in Michigan and elsewhere abandoned the industry.
“Cascade had been the backbone of the hops industry for a long time,” Tennis said, who still grows Cascade hops. “Unfortunately, some of the people in Michigan were given some bad information. They planted the wrong variety and it wasn’t marketable.”
The state also faces some disadvantages. The Northwest has a lock on many of the more profitable proprietary hops varieties in demand by brewers.
Tennis and others in the industry said Michigan hops farmers have made progress in production, marketing and more, becoming more competitive in the industry. They’ve also diversified with more varieties and the hope is they will continue to do so, knowing the beer industry is always looking something new.
“We’re really producing world-class hops right now,” Tennis said.
And there’s room for growth.
The Brewers Guild noted that Michigan-made beer accounts for just 10 percent of the state’s market, leaving ample room for more locally made brew — and the use of Michigan-grown hops.
“As long as we continue to develop new varieties of hops to keep brewers interested, we’ll be in great shape,” Tennis said. “The industry is robust. It’s never been better.”