Across the country and specifically Michigan, it seems that everywhere you turn, someone is talking about the growth in the craft brewery industry, and yet, not many people seem to be talking about the growth in hop farming. Maybe farming doesn’t seem quite so glamorous or accessible to the common consumer as a brewery does, but without hops, there would be no beer. Right now, there are an estimated 50 commercial hop farms and 10 commercial hop processers in Michigan alone, according to Matt Gura, hopyard manager at Hop Head Farms in Hickory Corners, Michigan. “We estimate that 800 acres were strung in 2017, and the number is projected to reach over 1,000 acres in 2018,” said Gura.
And due to today’s consumer’s desire to eat, drink and buy everything as local as possible, it seems obvious that more Michigan breweries are looking for more local hop growers and producers to keep production within the mitten. But how does a hop go from being grown in the field to being made into beer? We talked to Gura about the lifecycle of a hop from growth to glass.
The first stage in the life cycle of a hop is planting.
“When a yard is planted, growers utilize rhizomes, plugs or potted plants,” said Gura, explaining that the rhizome, plugs or potted plants are essentially stems from existing plants, baby rooted plants or larger rooted plants.
After planting, the growing process begins.
Gura explained that growers typically prune the first “flush” of growth in March/April when they emerge, because it would typically produce a lower yield than the second “flush” of growth. “Hops are a very challenging crop to grow,” explained Gura. “Because hops are relatively new to Michigan, growers are still figuring out how hops are grown best in our unique geographic and climatic conditions.”
Like any other crop, there are different ways to grow hops effectively. The traditional and most common way is to use or build trellises. Usually, poles that stand 18-22 feet above the ground are used to create a grid-like system, made out of cable and wire. The cable and wire are tightened to support the weight of the plants. “A typical plant will grow about 18-20 feet tall from May to July,” said Gura. After the crop begins to grow, the hops need to be trained as to where to grow. This is where the trellis system comes into play. Hopyard workers enter the field to hang strings so that the plants have somewhere to climb.
“Training consists of wrapping 2-4 bines (essentially a hop vine) clockwise around the string,” said Gura, explaining that the timing of the training is very important. Too early, or too late with this could potentially reduce the yield by 10-30 percent.
Once the training stage is complete, hops are fertilized and motivated to continue to grow.
“It’s not uncommon for a bine to grow six inches in a day during great weather,” he said.
Most hops that are grown in America are watered with a drip irrigation system, which can provide the ability to fertilize by irrigation.
When hops are growing, they go through two stages, the vegetative phase and the flowering phase. Once the bines reach a certain height (the climbing and growing is the vegetative state), that is when the flowering phase begins, which typically occurs around the time of the summer solstice. Hop flowers, or burrs, eventually turn into cones, which is what is later harvested.
“The cones are the end product, and contain the precious oils and resins that bitter beer and make it smell delicious,” said Gura. “There’s nothing quite like walking through a hop farm just prior to harvest, grabbing cones, breaking them open and delving into the wondrous aromas.”
Harvest, the next stage in the hops life, happens in the fall and is extremely intense. The entire bine is harvested and taken to a picker that strips and separates cones from the rest of the plant. Gura mentioned that the hop cones rot quickly once picked, and can smell like onion and garlic if not processed soon.
After being harvested, the hops must be dried, which is the next and final phase of the hop’s life. The hops have to be dried in order to be worked with, as they consist of 75-80 percent moisture when they are harvested. They are typically dried to have only 8-10 percent moisture.
“It commonly takes 4-8 hours to dry a batch of hops, depending on the system,” said Gura.
Hops are then cooled and pressed into bales, which typically weigh 130-200 pounds. They can then be sold as whole leaf, pelletized in a pellet mill or they can be made into different products if they are processed in other ways.
“Producing hops takes an incredible amount of commitment and devotion. It’s a lifestyle,” said Gura. His operation at Hophead Farms services more than 350 breweries all around the world, and his client base grows every year.
“Hops are complex and full of wonder.
There’s an old grower saying that once you’re scratched by the hop, it’s in your blood, and there’s no going back.”