2013-10-03 / Life in Leelanau

GROWERS HOPPING ON THE HOPS

By Amy Hubbell Of The Enterprise staff


DAN WIESEN holds a handful of hops before they are dried at Empire Hops Farm, one of the first commercial hop farms in the state. DAN WIESEN holds a handful of hops before they are dried at Empire Hops Farm, one of the first commercial hop farms in the state. Leelanau County, known as the largest producer of red tart cherries in the country, is taking the lead in production of a new cash crop: hops.

“Leelanau leads the state in hop production in terms of acreage,” said Rob Sirrine, MSU community food systems coordinator.

Over the past 5,000 years, hops have been used for medicinal purposes, as a fiber for paper, as a salad ingredient, and in pillows as a sleep aid. But its best known application is as a preservative and flavor agent in beer.

The United States ranks second worldwide in terms of hop production. However, widespread cultivation of the plant has been limited to the Pacific Northwest, specifically the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho — until now.

Dan Wiesen of Glen Arbor studied agriculture in college and grew cherries, apples and asparagus until the mid-1990s when he turned his efforts toward custom carpentry. But once the farming lifestyle grabs hold, it rarely lets go entirely and an observant Wiesen saw an opportunity.


HOPS LIKE these are becoming Leelanau’s newest cash crop as the number of micro-breweries grow in northern Michigan. HOPS LIKE these are becoming Leelanau’s newest cash crop as the number of micro-breweries grow in northern Michigan. “There was a hop shortage in Washington. Years ago, they used to grow them in Michigan and New York state,” he said. “So we began to look into it.”

After decades of poor returns, many growers out West began pulling their acreage out of production. That combined with a warehouse fire that destroyed 4 percent of the U.S. crop, increased the demand for hops.

It was 2008 when Wiesen, his brother, Mike; son Alex and friend John Stanz formed Empire Hops, one of the first commercial hop farms in Michigan.


TWO CREW members at Empire Hops load hop cones for drying after they come out of a stationary combine called a ‘Hopfenflucker’. TWO CREW members at Empire Hops load hop cones for drying after they come out of a stationary combine called a ‘Hopfenflucker’. “It’s really taken off,” said Wiesen.

The company has 54 acres in hops at several plots throughout the county — perhaps most visible along M-72 just east of the Village of Empire, near the main farm and office on Fredrickson Road.

Unlike most crops grown locally on trees, hops are perennial plants which are trained to follow strings attached to large poles — similar to green beans but on a much larger scale.

“The trellis poles are put in then the plants and strings,” Wiesen said. “We have 32 to 35,000 strings and every one is tied by hand.”

Each spring the perennial plants come alive and grow along the ground. Then they are hooked onto the string and trained to grow up.


DAN WIESEN stands at the entrance to Empire Hops warehouse where thousands of pounds of hops are processed into pellets used by commercial micro-brewers throughout the state. DAN WIESEN stands at the entrance to Empire Hops warehouse where thousands of pounds of hops are processed into pellets used by commercial micro-brewers throughout the state. “Around mid-May they start to grow like crazy … as much as 18 feet,” he said.

It’s the female portion of the plant in the form of a cone which is harvested beginning the last week of August. The strings are cut from the top of the poles and brought in for processing.

From there the vines are put into a stationary combine called a Hopfenflucker, where the stems and leaves of the plants are removed leaving only the hops which go through two 12-by-12-foot screen drying floors.

“We have six furnaces which remove 80 percent of the hop’s moisture,” Wiesen explained.

The dried hops are introduced to a hammer mill which pounds them into pellets. They are vacuum sealed in bags and put in a large freezer until they are needed by brewers.

“The pellets look like rabbit food,” he said.

The cost of establishing a hop yard is estimated at between $12,000 to $15,000 per acre. However, unlike cherry trees which take several years before they reach full production, hops have a much shorter time frame for payback.

“We had a decent crop the first year and by two years were at full production,” he said.

Hops will grow in soil in areas considered less than desirable for fruit crops.

“They don’t freeze and the deer don’t eat them,” Wiesen said.

Empire Hops harvested and processed 24 acres of hops last year — about 11,000 pounds of pellets. This year an estimated 50,000 pounds will be harvested by the company and 100,000 pounds next year.

There’s no need for a federal marketing to help balance supply with demand of this crop.

“The problem has been in getting enough consistent yields to the breweries,” Wiesen said.

Michigan topped a list of high growth states for craft beer included in a new “state of the industry” report prepared recently by a California investment bank.

The state’s 20 percent increase in craft breweries in 2011 outpaced the national trend of 12 percent, according to the report by the Demeter Group Investment Bank of San Francisco, citing information from the national Brewers Association.

Growth in the micro-breweries and the lack of hops have come together to create the perfect storm for Leelanau’s newest cash crop.

Processed hops run at $14 per pound. Brewers will pay as much as $18 per pound for organic.

“This never would have happened without the growth in craft brewing,” Sirrine said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

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