On this week’s episode of Beerland, Golden Road beer honcho Meg Gill heads to Michigan to see what’s going on in the Detroit beer scene. We asked beer writer Kenny Gould to talk to us about Michigan beer—and the state's booming hop industry. Tune in to Beerland tonight at 10 to see what Meg turns up.
“In the last ten years, Michigan has become one of the top ten hop-growing regions in the world,” said Brian Tennis, co-founder of Michigan Hop Alliance. “As a state, we’re still under 1,000 acres, but that’s more than most countries.”
If it seems crazy that an area with virtually no hop production ten years ago would now be one of the ten largest growing regions in the world, that’s because it is. The rise of Michigan hops has only been eclipsed by the rise in Bitcoin, or perhaps the craft beer industry itself, which grew from 2,500 breweries in 2012 to over 6,000 today.
However, Michigan has a history with hops. The state’s location on the 45th parallel makes for an ideal climate—“the sweet spot for growing hops around the world,” said Tennis. A hundred years ago, the swath of land from Michigan to New York was a global hop-growing powerhouse, and the Michigan hop industry thrived. Eventually, an outbreak of downy mildew pushed the industry to the Pacific Northwest, and any remaining Michigan hop farms shut down during Prohibition.
But the state’s hops are making a comeback, thanks to the region’s climate, support from Michigan State University, new technology that fights disease and bug pressure, and a tenacious wave of first-generation farmers.
“I worked in IT at Herman Miller,” Tennis said. “We purchased our first 10 acres in Omena a dozen years ago to camp. The rest is history.”
Justin Dieleman is another first generation farmer—before he and his family started Pure Mitten Hops in Coopersville, Michigan, he was a student and painter.
“My parents were retiring and they wanted to do something, and I was at Grand Valley State University doing biology and sustainable farming,” he said. “We saw some hop yards and went all in.”
Currently, Michigan Hop Alliance has fifty acres under cultivation, which serves 70 to 80 breweries inside Michigan, and another 700 outside the state. Pure Mitten has eleven acres, with another eight coming at the end of the season. This offically makes them both medium-sized Michigan hop farms, which generally range in size from backyard plots to 250 acres.
The nascent hops industry has been a boon to the state’s economy, but growth has come with challenges. The Pacific Northwest—currently one of the world’s largest hop growing region—has a proprietary hold on many hop varietals, especially the “sexy” hops like Amarillo, Simcoe, and Citra. This limits Michigan farmers to commercial varieties like the “Three Cs”: Chinook, Centennial, and Cascade.
“When a lot of farms started out, people put in Cascade like crazy,” said Dieleman. “It’s a bit over-planted now, so prices are dropping.”
“If we can get the right varieties, we’ll definitely expand,” said Tennis. “But there are a lot of proprietary hops that we can’t even pay to get rights to.”
Currently, Michigan Hop Alliance produces the Three Cs, as well as Cashmere, New Zealand varieties like Green Bullet and Rakau, French and English varieties, and a couple German varieties. Pure Mitten grows Crystal, Vojvodina, Brewer’s Gold, and Mackinac. If the state’s farmers can figure out how to differentiate themselves within the next few years, the region could once again be a major player in the global hops arena. In any case, we’re looking forward to the beers that result.