Hop to it: Farmers expand into novel crops

Micro-breweries and others in the Great Lakes states are looking for local and organic hops. Farmers are beginning to explore small acreage hops production.

“Dad, what in the heck is that?” my son Wyatt asked as we passed the telephone pole scale trellis system along M-72 near Empire. “Those are hops,” I replied, “a growing industry in Michigan.”

Recent hop shortages, growing appeal with specialty beers, and the desire for organic and locally sourced agricultural products have resulted in increasing interest in local hop production by farmers, brewers, and backyard enthusiasts throughout Michigan.

Over the last 5,000 years, hops (Humulus lupulus L.) have been used for medicinal purposes, as a salad ingredient, as a sleep aid in pillows, and perhaps most importantly as an essential ingredient in beer production. The female flower “cones” of the hop plant contain lupulin glands with compounds important to the brewing process. These compounds, including alpha acids, beta acids, and essential oils, contribute to beer’s bitterness and aroma.

In 2007, because of several unrelated factors, hop demand outpaced supply for the first time in years. Consequently, prices skyrocketed ($5-$50 pounds in Michigan) and the needs of small-scale breweries took a backseat to large scale beer producers who hold long-term contracts for 80 percent of U.S. hop production. As prices increased, interest in hops production nationwide grew and farmers in many Great Lakes States planted hops for the first time in more than100 years.

Though the vast majority of hops in the United States are produced in Washington and Oregon, because of growing interest in the “buy local” movement and organic production, there may be an opportunity for small scale producers to satisfy the needs of many Great Lakes microbreweries. A 2008 MSU Extension survey of brewers in Michigan found that: 100 percent were interested in establishing a contract with a small, local grower; 75 percent were concerned about the market security of hops; and, importantly 55 percent of brewers would pay a 1-10 percent premium for locally grown, organic hops. If growers are savvy and diversify their marketing to include the medicinal, herbal, and home-brew markets, they may be able to jump-start a regional hop industry.

Over the last few years, area growers have been diversifying into hop production. Today there are several hop growers in northern Michigan who collectively grow more than 50 acres. When combined with the three picking and processing operations in Leelanau and Grand Traverse County, hop production has enhanced economic development in the region. For more information about growing hops, call 231-256-9888 or contact Dr. Robert Sirrine at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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Editor’s note: Sirrine has developed a website with information about small scale hops production in the Great Lakes Region that launched during December 2011 at www.hops.msu.edu.

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