WASHINGTON, July 29, 2015 – While the vast majority of U.S. hops are still grown in the Northwest, farmers in two states – Michigan and New York – are leading a hop-growing renaissance in the East that promises high returns for producers and new tastes for craft beer enthusiasts.
Demand for American hops has increased dramatically in the past five years, mostly because the U.S. craft brewing industry, which often utilizes up to five times more hops in their brews than conventional domestics, has continued to grow steadily.
The latest stats from the Brewers Association, which represents U.S. craft and independent breweries, say the volume share of American craft beer was 11 percent of all beer produced in 2014, up from 5 percent in 2010. By 2020, experts suggest the craft share will jump to 20 percent.
To meet the demand of crafters (as craft breweries are called for short), new hop farms have sprouted up across the nation. Farmers in New York and Michigan saw their opportunity to join the hop growing business around 2009 when the nation experienced a hop shortage, said Erin Lizotte, an educator with Michigan State University Extension.
The shortage, which was primarily the result of an industry demand shift that favored less available, more fruity aroma hop varieties over more plentiful and bitter alpha hop varieties, caused the price of aroma hops to increase sharply, making “Michigan farmers take notice,” Lizotte said.
Hops were “right up our alley,” she continued, as Michigan is the second most diverse agricultural state behind California and is packed with specialty farmers equipped with the technological savvy and experience vital to growing hops.
Currently, Michigan has 800 acres in hops with another 200 or more acres due by year’s end. Admittedly, the Great Lakes State’s share is only a sliver of the country’s 40,000 acres, mostly located in Washington state (70 percent), Oregon (15 percent) and Idaho (10 percent), but Michigan and New York have a significant leg up on Northwestern competition in at least one area: water.
The Western drought and the region’s restrictive water rights system has meant traditional hop farmers in the Northwest haven’t been able to secure ample irrigation to bring on new acreage.
From the crafters’ perspective, geographic diversification in production is a good thing and vital to keeping hops stocks high, said Bart Watson, the chief economist for the Brewers Association. But ultimately, the market success of Eastern hops is “all going to come down to quality,” he said.
“We’re definitely seeing differences because of soils and climate” in the taste of hops grown in New York, Miller said. And so far, those differences have been well received by local brewery patrons.
Another factor driving demand for New York hops is the state’s Farm Brewery Law, instituted in 2012, which requires breweries with “farm” status to make sure 20 percent of the hops used in their brews are locally grown. By 2018, the threshold will rise to 60 percent, and in 2024, 90 percent. In return, farm breweries aren’t required to obtain an additional permit to serve beer by the glass.
Miller said producers in his state, which farm about 400 acres of hops annually, are encountering some logistical barriers in expanding their operations, however. For one, growers in the East “are starting from scratch” and “don’t have generations of experience” growing hops on a commercial basis like Washington growers have. Second, many starting farmers don’t have the resources to buy harvesters, which are tailored for hops production and typically have to be sourced from Germany, he added. And processing facilities for drying, pelleting and packaging hops are available on a limited basis, but are crucial for farmers who intend on selling to breweries.
The same limitations apply for Michigan farmers, Lizotte said – just before she added another to the list. Most of the aroma hop cultivars being planted in the East are actually bred to be grown in the West and resistant to Western pests, such as mites and powdery mildew, Lizotte explained. As a result, Michigan and New York farmers sometimes struggle to grow cultivars designed for a different climate and are forced to spray them more often with pesticides to control local pests.
Several research projects are in the works to develop new cultivars suited to Northeastern environments, including one at the University of Minnesota aimed at making an existing “feral” variety of hops resistant to downy mildew, which is endemic to the area. Several private sector propagators based in the East are working on breeding cultivars for commercial purposes as well, Lizotte said, and the University of Vermont has received several USDA grants to do the same.
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