Michigan growers are reaching the peak of hops harvest. The crop is a small ingredient in beer production, but adds a big punch. Commonly grown in the West, hops operations are now sprouting in Michigan, thanks to the state's booming brew industry.
The vines that climb into the sky are a sure sign that hop harvest is here. These long strands are a perennial plant, growing vertically, sometimes more than a foot per day, all supported by rope or twine.
“We tie every spring, put it in the ground with a clip, train that first vine and away it goes,” said Michigan Hops grower Pam Miller of Hopyards of Kent.
Pam Miller started up Hopyards of Kent in Greenville, Mich., in 2011, as a way to occupy her time during retirement. She was previously in the rose business. That’s a different crop, but similar craft.
“It is a flower, not a fruit or vegetable,” said Miller.
Like other harvests, hops are on a timeline--a strict one. Each vine needs to be picked, dried and stored within 24 hours.
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Michigan farmers haven’t always grown hops. Growers like Miller are responding to demand from brewers and the booming craft beer industry in the state.
"Pam is one of our (longest-term) growers and she's been growing (hops) since 2011. The business only goes back to '08," says Jim Parks, president at United Hops Brokerage.
Demand is soaring.
“With what we’re looking at now, there’s a window of eight years before we could begin to fill the orders of the Michigan brewers alone," says Miller. "If I could put in another 50 acres tomorrow, it would be sold."
Part of that growth is location-related. "The 45th parallel around the world is known as best ideal conditions. We sit about 43. You’ll see hops grown in Canada as well. You’re not going to find them in Florida. The nature of this plant needs all four seasons,” Miller explains.
“We’re the exact latitude line they were out west. We have tons of water. What don’t they have out west? They don’t have water. We have one-fifth or one-sixth of the world’s water with the Great Lakes. That’s a bonus for us,” Parks notes.
When the time is right, the best way to pick the hops is to cut the vine-like crop, gather it and pile it into tarps.
It's then brought to the harvester or picker. The machine feasts on the rest of the vine that will be spread on fields later. The hops are pulled off into boxes or rolled down an assembly line.
After a night of drying, the hopp will be placed in bags for cold storage.
“We’ll bring it down to this floor level and stay for the day," Miller says. "We need to get it down to what the outside temperature is.”
And the Pam Miller and her crew head back to the field, turning rows of tall vines into palate-pleasing refreshments.
Have any specialty crops emerged as a viable business in your area? Let us know in the comments.