The Rise of Hops Growing in Michigan

When you think of craft beer in the US, where do your thoughts turn first? You might think of Portland or Seattle. You might think of Denver, Colorado. Even Maine is getting back into the act here. However, Michigan is also becoming known for their hops varieties. The state is home to a vibrant craft beer industry, but it goes a bit deeper than just a lot of folks brewing beer in their garages. The state seems poised to make significant headway in growing this essential brewing ingredient though no one really expects them to knock the leading states out of the running. 

The Growth of the US Hops Market

Most hops comes from Europe – noble hops (the most preferred and prestigious varieties) come from areas that have been traditionally known for cultivation over the last few centuries. With that being said, the rise of the US craft brew market has sparked an interest in “going local” for all the ingredients to brew great beer. Wheat and barley have not been a problem, and water is certainly not an issue. The largest problem has been hops.

In the 1800s, American hops were grown in a variety of different locales across the nation, though Maine and New York were the best known. Prohibition and a terrible blight combined to end the Northeast’s reign as King of Hops. It was not until the beginning of the 21st century that US hops growth began to take off again in earnest.

The Northeast took off first, as the area’s climate and soil are ideal for growing hops. The Northwest is also a prime area for hops growth, given the cool, damp climate of states like Washington and Oregon. However, Michigan got into the act soon after and has been making strides since then. 

A Small but Growing Market

One of the primary reasons that hops is growing as a crop in Michigan is to supply local breweries with the raw ingredients needed. Importing hops can be expensive, even if they come from within the US. The cost of buying hops grown within the state is far lower, which enables craft brewers to offer a high quality brew without some of the markup (and that’s obviously an important consideration for beer lovers). 

Michigan currently does not have enough hops growth to supply the entire state’s needs, but the industry is growing. Estimates put the required area under tillage at about 400 acres and only a fraction of that is currently producing hops (about 90 acres or so). The growth is coming in some surprising ways as well. For instance, a significant portion of the land currently producing hops is actually part of a farmer coop group called the Old Mission Hop Exchange. Empire Hops Farm is another similar group and a third is the Michigan Hop Alliance. All three groups are not only active growers and producers of hops for craft brewing but are also active in promoting the spread of hops as a viable crop for the state’s farmers.

The Buy Local Initiative

One of the driving forces behind the growth of the hops industry in Michigan is the buy local initiative. As the national economy staggers along, more and more states are looking for ways to help their economies whether the federal government does anything or not. The buy local movement can be found across all industries but is particularly strong in the craft brew segment.

As more acreage is put to use for growing hops, more farmers are able to realize significant benefits over “traditional” crops. Of course, there is still an enormous demand for grain as it’s another essential ingredient for beer.

When breweries source their ingredients locally, it benefits the entire state. Michigan brewers who buy hops and grain from farms within the state pay a slightly higher premium for their ingredients, but the difference is more than made up for savings in shipping costs (often, there’s almost no shipping costs at all if the brewery and farms are in the same local area).

Green Benefits

As you might imagine, the reduction in shipping costs is not something that benefits the economy alone. As more and more companies become concerned about “going green” the need to reduce business’ carbon footprints grows. One of the best ways to do that is to buy locally and craft breweries in Michigan are jumping on that particular bandwagon in droves. While businesses can buy carbon credits or source from “green” suppliers, both of those methods are problematic for a couple of reasons.

Buying carbon credits is really just a license for companies to be environmentally irresponsible. After all, so long as they purchase credits the environment is supposedly being benefitted somewhere. The problem is that it’s not the local environment and companies that buy the credits often cause significant harm on their own. The illusion of being environmentally responsible is not enough.

The problem with sourcing ingredients from “green” suppliers who are outside the state is that there’s really no way to tell for sure if those suppliers really are green. Almost anyone can slap a sticker on their product saying that it’s “environmentally” friendly. Even if the supplier complies with the somewhat lax federal EPA guidelines, there’s still a lot of wiggle room within those guidelines for a product that claims to be “green” not to be.

In the End

In summation, while Michigan will not likely outrank the Northeast or Pacific Northwest in hops growth any time soon, the state is making significant strides in production of this vital beer ingredient. More and more farmers are turning to this as a potential replacement crop for other staples and more and more local breweries are looking to source their ingredients locally. This trend can actually be seen all around the nation. As the craft brew industry continues to mature and grow, the need for locally sourced hops and grains will grow with it. That’s good news for a lot of people.

Posted on January 1, 2012 and filed under The Business of Beer.