Hops and craft beer

Michigan's place in the hops and craft beer industry.

Water, hops, malt and yeast are four ingredients that, when combined, produce a frothy beverage known as beer. Up until the early 1980s, beer produced in the United States was light, refreshing and some would argue-flavorless. Nearly 37 years ago to the day, in Chico, California, Ken Grossman brewed the first batch of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. A flavorful, hop-forward ale that began what has become a craft beer revolution.  

The Brewers Association defines craft beer as: “Small- annual production of six million barrels of beer or less; Independent- less than 25 percent of the craft brewery is owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer; and Traditional- a brewer that has a majority of its total beverage alcohol volume in beers where flavor derives from traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation.”

The U.S. craft beer industry has grown dramatically over the last several years. In 2013, while total beer production was down 1.9 percent, craft beer production increased 17.2 percent to 7.8 percent overall market share by volume (Brewers Association). In 2015, total beer production was down 0.2 percent, while craft increased 12.8 percent to 12.2 percent overall market share by volume. While exact figures are difficult to determine, there are more than 5,300 craft breweries in the U.S.; at least 334 in Michigan alone (Halfpenny, pers. comm.). Nearly 50 percent of growth by volume can be attributed to hop-heavy India Pale Ales.

Hops (Humulus lupulus) are an essential ingredient in beer production. Brewers use hops for aroma and bittering which counters the sweetness of malt, another main ingredient. Hops also have preservative qualities. Humulus is the genus of herbaceous climbing plants that most likely originated in China, but is indigenous to temperate areas of the northern hemisphere including Asia, Europe and North America. Humulus is one of the two genera in the Cannabinaceae family, the other is Cannabis. Hop are dieoecious meaning there are separate male and female plants, perennial below ground and produce annual bines from an overwintering rhizome, a below ground stem and root system. Only the female flower or cone is desirable for use in beer production. The cones are light green, papery strobiles that contain Lupulin glands, which are home to alpha and beta acids and essential oils.

There are two distinct markets for hops: the alpha market where hops are used for bittering and the aroma market where hops are used for flavor. Some varieties of hops are considered dual-purpose and can be used for both. Historically, the U.S. was the leading producer of alpha hops which were sold to mega-brewers for bittering. Until 2008, 75 to 80 percent of U.S. acreage was planted to hi-alpha, bittering hops. With the dramatic growth of craft and aromatic beers (IPAs), 83 percent of U.S. acreage is now planted to aroma hops (2016). From 1930 to 2015, total U.S. hop acreage has averaged between 20,000 to 40,000 acres. In 2016, there were more than 50,000 acres in the U.S. The craft beer movement, local food and beverage trends and favorable growing conditions has facilitated the development of new hop production enterprises in new or re-emerging regions. Of the 50,000 U.S. acres planted in 2016, 2,500 acres were planted outside of the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon and Idaho). Michigan is currently ranked fourth in hop production with more than 800 acres in the ground. While this pales in comparison to Washington state, if Michigan was a country, it would rank in the top 15 globally. Not bad considering the first commercial hopyard was installed on Old Mission peninsula in 2007.

Growers throughout the state contend with a variety of challenges common to other agricultural industries: disease, insects, weather, marketing, competing with fifth generation Pacific Northwest producers growing proprietary varieties, obtaining virus and disease free plants and more. In spite of these challenges, there are opportunities as well.

According to Nielsen Survey data, millennials are more interested in purchasing craft beer that has been brewed locally using local ingredients than other age groups. Just within the last two years, sales of locally produced craft beer surpassed sales of all other craft beer combined in major cities like Chicago and San Diego. This trend is likely to continue and offers opportunities for Michigan hop producers to grow, analyze and market Michigan grown hops, which may have different flavor profiles when grown under our unique environment and climatic conditions. For example, brewers have noticed Chinook hops grown in Michigan have more fruity, aromatic traits as compared to Chinook hops grown in the Pacific northwest. As the craft beer revolution expands overseas, opportunities should become available for Michigan producers to export hops abroad.

Closer to home, many Michigan craft brewers are now featuring fresh wet-hopped harvest ales. These are only produced immediately after harvest, since the fresh harvested hops are taken directly from the field to the brewery. Because of the proximity between Michigan hop producers and craft brewers, many wet-hopped harvest ales are produced using Michigan grown hops. These delicious beers are only available for a limited time and should be consumed immediately for optimal flavor.

I encourage you to try a Michigan craft beer produced using Michigan hops. You won’t be disappointed. 

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