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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!

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