It's all in the hops
Leelanau, long recognized as a fruit growing region, is developing a reputation for its ability to produce another crop — hops.
Of an estimated 50 to 60 acres of the flower grown in northwest Michigan nearly one-third is planted on the Leelanau peninsula.
“We’re very excited about the interest in hop production,” said Rob Sirrine, community food systems educator for the Michigan State University Extension office in Suttons Bay. “Growing hops offers farmers in our area a chance to diversify their production. But growing hops is more work than people realize.
“The key is for growers to produce high quality crops, so we don’t have to compete at the commodity level with Washington State growers.”
Participants in the tour saw first-hand the work that goes into growing the new niche crop.
“I was the guy who talked about what to do and what not to do when starting up,” said Doug Periard, who has two acres of hops in their second year of production off Herman Road in Suttons Bay Township.
Periard, a Suttons Bay teacher, planted the hops with direction from friend and fellow Norsemen football coach Dan Wiesen. Wiesen and several partners operate Empire Orchards and Hops in Empire Township. They have dwarf apple trees on five acres and hops on nine acres.
In Leelanau, it’s common to see cherries in orchards and grapes in vineyards. But the county’s newest crop grows up 20-foot poles, in “hop yards,” a new curiosity for not only visitors but locals as well.
Periard looks to Wiesen for direction, but the builder/cabinet maker said much of what he’s learned has been through trial and error.
“It’s hard because this is only our third year. Nobody’s had them for any longer and we don’t know what to expect,” Wiesen said.
Like perennial flowers, hop plants generate additional plants with each year of growth.
“You start with 1,000 plants with one string (for the plant to train) and add a second string for the second bine which will come in the second year,” Wiesen explained.
Within four years, the original 1,000 plants will have quadrupled to 4,000.Wiesen anticipates harvesting his third crop of hops soon after Labor Day. The harvest involves one person at the top of the poles, cutting the vine-like woody stalks called “bines,” and another person cutting from below. The bines fall into a trailer and are processed using a thresher that separates the hops from the bines.
“It’s a German machine called a ‘Hopin’ Fluker’ … don’t ask me how to spell it,” Wiesen said.
His is one of three harvest operations in the county.
“Northwest Michigan has the most acreage in the state and the most progressive hop growers and three picking machines in the area imported from Europe,” Sirrine said. “We are definitely the leaders in northwest Michigan, if not the whole Great Lakes area.”
Eight varieties of hops are grown by Wiesen’s group in Empire, each lending themselves to different characteristic to their finished product: beer.
There are Fuggle and Willamette, named for the Willamette Valley, an important hop-growing area in Washington State. It has a character similar to Fuggle, but is more fruity and has some floral notes. Crystal is also on the aromatic side providing a hint of cinnamon, black pepper, and nutmeg to the beer drinker.
Wiesen’s plantings include more highly acidic varieties such as Chinook, Brewer’s Gold and Magnum.
The hop field day included a stop at New Mission Hops Organics on Craker Road near Omena, which is a short trellis hopyard with 23 different varieties. It includes USDA grant research plots.
To date, Wiesen has had no problems selling the hops to any number small-batch local breweries which have sprung up in recent years.
The entire 1,000-pound yield from last year’s crop went to Right Brain Brewery and Jolly Pumpkin Brewery in Traverse City, and Frankenmuth Brewery.
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff