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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Inside-look: Michigan's emerging hop industry

Brian Tennis, a founding member of the Michigan Hop Alliance, responded recently via Facebook to this article in the Hastings Reminder. We found his impromptu address on "what it takes to succeed at commercial hop growing" a fascinating mini-manifesto (mini-festo?), and one worthy of reposting. Here it is in its entirety, published with both Brian's permission and the understanding that future addresses/updates from him on the current state of Michigan hop farming are from now on always welcome on The Buzz.

By Brian Tennis

The article "Homegrown ingredients also brew economic growth" is an interesting take on the state of Michigan hops. We could not agree more: quality and consistency has been and will continue to be critical as our new industry emerges.

This is no longer simply about being a weekend farmer and drying hops on a screen you grabbed off the house, even though we have all “been there and done that” and had surprisingly decent results. This is also not about spending countless hours hand-picking cones until you developed “hop haze.” Trust us, you really never want to hand-pick an acre of hops more than once in your lifetime.

Commercial hop farming in Michigan is now here and it is real. It is time to step up our game. That is why we have traveled to Yakima Valley, Washington and, more recently, to Nelson, New Zealand to study and learn from some of the best in the business. This is not about tooting our own horn, but knowledge leveraging. You simply cannot take a textbook and hope to learn everything there is to know about farming and/or hop processing. Sometimes there is just no substitute for real world knowledge and hands on experience. We have all had some terrific wins so far in our industry and the proof is in the commercial beers that have been released either on-tap or in the bottle by some of the best breweries in Michigan. This success will only continue if some key goals are established and consistently met.

In our opinion and after talking to almost every commercial brewer in Michigan, we have determined several key areas that we all need to focus on. They include overall quality, price, alpha and beta testing, H.S.I. (hop storage index), packaging (the proper size and the correct bags), form (properly done pellets and whole cone) and proper drying techniques. You could do all of these steps really well except for one and you are done. Brewers cannot afford to gamble with inferior product, no matter how “local” it is. The sense of community may get you in the door, but don’t be surprised if that doors hits you on the way out if the quality is lagging.

It’s also critical to focus on the brewers' needs; if they want ten pounds of a particular hop and you only have a bale, break it down and sell it to them. To quote Bob Farrell, the founder of Farrell’s Ice Cream “give them the pickle.” In other words, give the brewer what THEY want. I have actually heard of a grower walking into a brewery with a 50-pound bag of pelletized hops sealed with duct tape and demanding a yearly contract. This is NOT how business gets done.

I wish everyone who is interested in growing hops all the very best, even if it’s four plants or forty acres. Hops truly are wonderful crop to grow, but be warned, there is a LOT of work and capital involved and you will probably not get filthy rich growing them. Do it for the right reasons. Do it because you’re passionate about it. Do it because you love to get your hands dirty. Do it because you love to create beauty. Do it because you are proud of what you are doing. Personally, the best moment I had all last year was sitting in a well-known Michigan brewery and ordering a fresh harvest ale with hops that we grew and it tasted amazing. Life doesn’t get much better than that. Cheers!

Siciliano's is proud to offer several varieties of hops grown and packaged by the Michigan Hop Alliance. Next time you stop in for homebrew supplies, be sure to check out the selection!

3 comments:

  1. Michigan Hop Alliance hops make a great beer, the hop aroma from the DIPA I made from them has held up very well. It is one of the best beers I've made, I credit the hops.

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  2. How are the hops typically grown from a pesticide/fertilizer standpoint? It's seems Organic certification is costly and a hassle (a New Belgium rep told me they were ceasing production of their one Organic beer), but is there a general consensus on keeping the process as natural and organic as possible?

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  3. Hops are typically grown in a conventional manner with plenty of pesticides and herbicides. They also rely heavily on man-made fertilizer. My farm has one of the few certified organic hopyards in Michigan and one of the only certified organic processing facilities in the United States. The American Organic Hop Grower Association, which we are members of, has worked to have hops removed from the USDA National Organic Program's National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. As of 2013, all beers that carry the organic label must use organic hops. Up until recently, this was not the case, and brewer's were able to side-step this rule because of work done on behalf of Anheuser-Busch by petitioning the USDA National Organic Standards Board for the exemption. Their claim at the time was that were not enough certified organic hops to go into their ill-fated experiment with Green Valley Brewing Company, the makers of "Wild Hop" and the Crooked Creek Brewing Company who sold a beer called "Stone Mill." The beer was essentially a Budweiser product, and in my opinion, a very poor tasting product at that. That little experiment did not last long and they pulled the product from the market. However the exemption was still on the books and we fought very hard to get it removed. So if you do see an organic beer on the shelf, you can be assured that it is a genuine organic product. With that out of the way, organic hop farming can be difficult because of the amount of nutrients that the plant relies on and getting those nutrients in organic form can be difficult and VERY expensive. The cost of organic certification alone is not cheap either. We were paying close to $1000 per year on a one acre test plot just to have the paper to say we were certified. Another hurdle is the reduction in yield for organic hop farming. Compared to our integrated hopyards, the yields can be up to 50% less, hence the increase in cost to brewer's. We still love to farm organically and will continue to do so, but we are also realists and have hopyards that have integrated pest and fertilizer programs. Meaning, we still use as much organic inputs as possible, but some of the material may not be certified organic.

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