Despite a historically cold spring, a year-over-year decline in acreage and new outbreaks of pests, some local growers of hops are reporting record-breaking harvests.
A number of different varieties of hops are grown in the state — each with a different yield, aroma and flavor profile. Brewers use the harvested hop flower to add bitter, floral, fruity, or citrus flavors to beer.
Hop growers — like most Michigan farmers — faced delays related to one of the wettest spring seasons on record.
“Everything was really late,” said Brian Tennis, owner of Omena-based grower and broker Michigan Hop Alliance LLC.
Normally, the plants that grow on the farm at Michigan Hop Alliance — located on Northern Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula — would be 20 feet tall by July 1, Tennis told MiBiz.
“But this July 1st, everything was like 12 feet tall,” he said. “I was really freaking out.”
Cold, wet spring weather also invites downy mildew to the plants, which Tennis said the farm also dealt with this year. Fortunately, after a string of hot weather throughout July, the plants “took off,” he said.
“The spring (weather) really didn’t impact us long term, which is pretty amazing,” he said.
Now, yields — even on mature plants — could be up 25 percent from last year at Michigan Hop Alliance.
“In spite of that weather, the hops just powered through it,” he said. “We’ll probably have the best crop we’ve had since we started 11 years ago. It’s just amazing what has happened in the last month or so.”
The production of hops, a perennial climbing vine with a cone-shaped flower, is concentrated in moist temperate climates. The introduction and expansion of hop farms in Michigan coincided with the statewide growth of the craft brewing industry over the past two decades.
Although the vast majority of hops grown in the U.S. come from the Pacific Northwest, Michigan has grown to become the fourth-largest cultivator of hops in the country.
The total acreage dedicated to growing hops in Michigan tripled from 2014 to 2017, but the state’s acreage declined last year because of the oversaturation of some varieties in the market, as MiBiz previously reported.
All over the map
It remains to be seen how the harvest growth holds up across the state this year.
Michigan Hop Alliance also buys and sells hops for other farms in the state, brokering from growers to brewers. Tennis said consistency remains a constant struggle.
“We’re dealing with a lot of microclimates, whereas in the Pacific Northwest and the Yakima Valley, a lot of those hops are planted and grown in a certain radius so that they’re fairly close to each other,” he said. “In Michigan, we could be several hundred miles apart.”
In other parts of the state, a destructive pest on the hunt for a new host decimated some varieties of the crop.
Because of the spring weather and soggy fields, about 10 percent of intended corn plantings in Michigan didn’t make it into the ground this year. That led the European Corn Borer, a moth that usually plagues grain fields, to find a new host in unsuspecting hop yards.
“Nobody really knew about how to prevent those or at least saw them coming,” Mike Moran, sales and marketing manager at MI Local Hops LLC, told MiBiz.
The pest affected various hop yards differently on MI Local’s 200-acre farm, located on what was once an abandoned golf course 6 miles north of Traverse City.
More established “meaty” varieties survived the infestation well, but younger or more niche strands, like Triple Pearl and the up-and-coming public strain Cashmere, got “smoked,” he said.
“It’s a bummer because those are all new varieties to the market and new varieties to the brewers here in the Midwest and they were counting on them,” he said. “It’s a small effect, but it does affect our catalogs.”
Overall, the farm — which is the state’s largest growing operation — expects to harvest “average” yields this year, according to Moran.
“I don’t go crazy over the yields across the board, because last year was down, so an increase this year is basically balanced out from year-to-year,” he said. “I look more at individual yards and how they’re yielding year-to-year.”
Higher harvest levels this year may not be the best thing for a market that is already saturated with popular varieties like Centennial and Cascade, Moran added.
However, growers of niche varieties and strains with flavors that are newer to the market won’t have trouble selling any extra crop, according to Lynn Kemme of Great Lakes Hops Inc., a private hop breeding company that develops new hop cultivars for Midwest producers.
“We’ve got brewers that have bigger plans than what our growers can produce,” he said. “Brewing marches forward not only for craft but also for the big brewers in the world.
“Our growers get better every year,” Kemme added. “We’re hoping that the quality of the crop means that our growers’ hops will sell before that same variety in other parts of the country due to quality and that the brewers — if they want to see local — that they gravitate and support these growers and their prospects.”
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