Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Will Hops be the Next Big Michigan Crop?
My interest in beer and brewing has grown from my marriage to a self-described Beer Nerd. So, when we heard that there are hops growing in North-West Michigan, we had to check it out. The big name in town is Two Peninsula Hops. They have around 10 acres of hops now on Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsulas. With expansion plans in place, they also have a hops processing facility on Old Mission. I contacted Steve Sobkowski, who graciously spent a morning with my husband, Bob and I giving us a detailed tour. The primary hops that they grow are Cascade, Centennial, and Chinook – the Three C’s as Bob calls them.
Steve is farming the 160 year old family farm including cherries, wine grapes, hops, plums, and shitake mushrooms. Soon this list will include pears. His family started the first farm on Old Mission Peninsula 5 or 6 generations ago. For the hops, they started with rhizomes from Washington State and will be purchasing plants from Colorado in the future. He even has wild hops growing up the side of the home that he grew up in. They have been growing on the property since he was a child.
Steve is as “retired” as a farmer can be. His first career was in civil/structural engineering in San Francisco. His degree and knowledge came in handy when he purchased a 1972 era Hauptschalter machine from Germany. It arrived in 10,000 parts - with no instruction manual. But, he put it together. It is used for removing the hop flowers from the bines.
They look like vines, but are called bines because they have stems with stiff hairs to aid in climbing, whereas vines have appendages for attaching themselves. This big blue machine strips the leaves and flowers off and the pushes them out of separates sides. As the hop flowers are dried and move through the facility they make their way to another machine that pelletizes them. Most brewers use pelletized hops because they are more convenient for the brewing process. They also maintain freshness during storage.
Right now, the hop pellets are sold to two local breweries: Right Brain and Jolly Pumpkin. Steve’s vision is to add many more Michigan microbreweries and home brewers. He estimates that it would take 350 acres to serve the Michigan brewery facilities alone. Since we grow barley in Michigan and have plenty of suitable water, 100% Michigan beer could be produced in the future.
Quality is a high priority for Two Peninsula. Steve’s process stresses quality to maximize the flavor and aromatic properties of the hops. His custom designed hop drying equipment and unique utilization of a cooling room contributes to their attributes.
The tour made us thirsty! We went over to Right Brain Brewery. Bob ordered the Will Power Pale Ale (which would have been made from Two Peninsula hops, but they ran out and are waiting for this year’s harvest). And I ordered the Strawberry Fields Extra Pale Ale infused with local strawberries and local honey. The Farm Boy brand tortilla chips made from Michigan grown open pollinated (heirloom) corn in North Branch, MI were a delicious addition. We chatted with owner and brewer Russell Springsteen. His goal is to brew with at least 80% Michigan hops. Right now he is planning his wet hopped harvest season beer. Last Spring he made an asparagus beer – wish I could have tasted that. He’d like to use Michigan barley, but we need a local malting house. (Good idea for a beer entrepreneur somewhere in MI.) For dinner that night – at the Jolly Pumpkin, of course – I drank the North Peak Archangel Cherry Wheat made with Michigan hops and cherries.
Thanks again to Steve Sobkowski for the tour and education on hop growing in Michigan. And, thanks to Bob for the great photographs.