Picking up crop pace to meet demand for Michigan craft beverages

More locally grown grapes and hops support for Michigan's growing craft beverage industries.

More and more Michiganders are growing grapes and hops to help support the state’s burgeoning craft beverage industry, which includes beer, wine, cider and spirits.

Trey Malone, assistant professor in the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, said the state now ranks No. 4 in the nation in both hop and grape production, largely because of heightened demand from these small-batch operations.

Trey Malone

“Our state’s diverse agricultural production – second only to California – allows us to develop supply chains that many parts of the country cannot,” he said. “Anytime new consumer interests arise, we can respond more quickly than many other states.”

In general, craft beverage operations are small-scale and independently owned, although the definition continues to evolve, as do federal and state regulations for alcoholic beverage production and distribution.

There were slightly more than 2,000 U.S. breweries in 2011. Now there are more than 7,000 breweries in the United States, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade organization for small and independent craft brewers.

Malone fondly refers to the willingness of Michigan growers to experiment and share information in collaboration with the state’s craft beverage industry as “entrepreneurial spirit.” Puns aside, the farmers’ work helps to support vintner, brewer and cider maker needs, and enlarges the market for local agricultural production.

The Michigan craft beer industry alone generated nearly $500 million in gross state product in 2016, contributing nearly $1 billion and 9,738 jobs to the state’s economy. - Trey Malone from his “Craft Beer as a Means of Economic Development: An Economic Impact Analysis of the Michigan Value Chain” paper in the journal Beverages

Timothy Miles, assistant professor in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, said strong demand for locally produced beer and wine has increased collaboration by MSU researchers, government partners and industry groups to support education, production, distribution and advocacy.

“The public is becoming more aware of where things come from, and more brewers are also caring that their hops are grown in the state,” Miles said.

In fact, hops production has recently skyrocketed to more than 800 acres.

“Ten years ago, there were basically no hops grown in Michigan,” Malone said. “Researchers from MSU, especially on the Extension side, recognized an increasing interest in growing hops. Almost immediately, Extension educators such as Rob Sirrine and Erin Lizotte responded to fill this knowledge void and develop a program that other states outside the Pacific Northwest look to for direction.”

The flavor of Michigan-grown Chinook hops is particularly in demand, so much so that the Hop Growers of Michigan awarded the Chinook Cup at its annual Great Lakes Hop and Barley Conference. A panel of expert craft brewers decide the winner through a series of blind sensory tests. This year the conference runs March 5-7.

Malone also conducts research on consumer behavior and decision making. In his studies, he has found that 90 percent of Michigan brewers believe local hops taste different from hops grown in other states.

When determining what aroma hops to purchase, how do you weigh the following categories?

Always 22 
Sometimes  27
Rarely 20
Never 31

2019 data collected by Trey Malone on what hop characteristics mattered most to Michigan brewers.

“Michigan growers focus on producing aromatic hops,” he said. “What we care about is how it smells and how it feels on the tongue. Those aromatics are what craft brewers are really excited about. Similar to wine, we’re learning that hops grown in different places have unique flavor profiles.”

Grape production is also on the rise as more and more wineries open. Home to 13,700 acres of vineyards, the state produces V. vinifera varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir, and commercial wineries bottle more than 2.7 million gallons of wine annually, making Michigan the No. 5 wine-producing state.

The picturesque vineyards across Michigan have also sparked tourism and boosted the state’s economy.

“There’s a certain perception of what a winery is,” Miles said. “You often see the vineyard driving up to a winery. There’s almost a sort of romantic quality about it.”

Timothy Miles

Small craft beverage businesses are also finding clever ways to market themselves, oftentimes collectively.

“We have one of the best beer cities in the country in Grand Rapids. In fact, the city even markets itself as Beer City, USA,” Malone said. “I believe that what people mean when they say ‘local’ is that they want to tap into a collective community identity. Craft beverages are a quintessential example of how agribusinesses across the value chain can connect with their ‘local’ community.”

But not everything about grape and hop production in Michigan is rosy. This past growing season was extremely difficult. Above average rainfall and cold weather late this growing season increased the crops’ susceptibility to pests and disease.

“Grapes certainly get a lot of diseases in Michigan because of our humid climate,” Miles said. “Diseases such as powdery mildew and downy mildew are a regular problem. There are also issues with fungal pathogens that rot the fruit. It takes a pretty extensive management strategy to keep grapes healthy.”

Downy mildew is also an issue for hops. MSU Extension educators and specialists have worked with USDA programs, particularly the IR4 Project, to facilitate registrations of conventional pesticides and biopesticides on specialty food crops. These have been critical to manage diseases such as downy mildew.

Other challenges include mites on leaf surfaces and the European corn borer, which was found in hops for the first time this year. The bottom line: pest management costs are higher in Michigan than in other competing areas such as the Pacific Northwest because of Michigan’s climate.

Despite the differences in climate, MSU often collaborates with other states on research.

“We write grants with many researchers in the Pacific Northwest, and they often prefer to have Michigan involved because we’re in another part of the U.S. and we have a very different climate,” Miles said. “The USDA likes to see national involvement from a research and funding perspective, too.”

The increased quality and demand of Michigan hops and tapping into the buying-local spirit can produce economic benefits for communities as well as the state overall.

Ninety-five percent of Michigan brewers think buying locally produced inputs is good for the local economy, according to Malone’s research.

“Every dollar a brewery spends on Michigan hops translates to some Michigan farmer’s checkbook. In turn, growers spend money hiring their labor force and purchasing equipment,” Malone said. “The notion of buying local has so many important economic implications.”

Malone conducted hop sensory taste tests at the Michigan Brewers Guild conference in January to gather more information about brewer flavor and taste impressions and to determine which cultivars to grow in the future.

“The most beautiful aspect of the land-grant mission is that it’s literally our job to respond to interests and concerns from stakeholder groups with data-driven, fact-based information,” Malone said.

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