What differs in taste and aroma depending on where it is grown, and is squeezed to determine if it’s ready to be harvested? Hops, of course!
Hops are a key ingredient in the brewing of beer, and the United States has become the largest hop producer in the world. Traditionally, brewers might have ordered hops from large Pacific Northwest operations. However, Michigan hop production has boomed and our state now ranks fourth in the country for hop production.
Among the many hop farms in Michigan, the Michigan Hop Alliance was one of the first. Roughly ten years ago, Brian Tennis and his wife, Amy, bought a plot of land hidden away in the little town of Omena. Originally intended as a camping property, they soon realized its potential as farm land. Cherry trees were already present on the property, so that’s where they started.
However, they soon discovered cherries could be difficult to maintain. Cherries can be highly sensitive to unfavorable weather patterns: late Spring frosts, high winds, hail, etc.
“Cherries only bloom once, so if something happens, they’re done. Hops can bloom again, so if something does happen, they have a second chance,” said Tennis.
It is along the 45th parallel that ideal growing conditions for hops can be found. The 45th parallel, upon which Tennis’ farm rests, serves as the halfway point between the Equator and North Pole. The 45th provides the right amount of daylight and water for hops to thrive.
“We really have a microclimate here: with the Grand Traverse Bay, Lake Michigan, and our rainfall,” said Tennis.
One variety currently flourishing on the farm is Summit hops. This dwarf variety grows on shorter ropes, and the hops grow in compact clusters. Summit is typically grown in the Pacific Northwest; Tennis is experimenting with how well it’ll do in Northern Michigan. He’s also experimenting with a variety of non-commercial hops that are typically grown in France, Japan, and Kazakhstan.
“We have over twenty different hops, and the Hop Alliance has really become a trial land for myself and other farmers,” said Tennis.
Michigan Hop Alliance often works with other farmers throughout the process to grow, pick, dry, and/or pelletize the hops. In many cases, Michigan Hop Alliance will also market the hop, aiding the farmers along the entire process.
The growing process starts with cleanly propagated plants, consistent maintenance, and an organic approach. Tennis even has sheep on hand to help maintain the bottom of the hop bine; by eating growth at the bottom, the sheep naturally provide the bines with proper air flow, decreasing mildew and promoting further growth.
And, as we sneak into September, the hops are nearly ready for harvest.
“If you squeeze them, and they bounce back, they’re not quite ready. You also want to make sure the lupulin is schoolbus yellow,” Tennis explained.
The hops Tennis tends to are found in some of your favorite beers. The Michigan Hop Alliance works closely with breweries throughout the state, including Grand Rapids Brewing Company, Brewery Vivant, Short’s, and Stormcloud.