BEER CLINIC :: At The Hop [Harvest]

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on October 28, 2014

Figure 1 handfulHops, hops, and more hops! It is a dream come true for a hophead like me. I was thrilled to participate in the hop harvest in Leelanau Co, Michigan this fall. Picture me on a lovely autumn morning, sitting in a tractor, harvesting hops, and later sharing a draft of delicious, locally brewed Michigan IPA.

Here is how you harvest hops. You may recall from an earlier post  that hops grow as vines trained on 18-foot tall strings, strung in parallel rows, each of which is secured to permanent overhead wire tracks. Fig 2 TractorThe rows are spaced just right to enable the specialized tractor, which looks like a preying mantis, to grasp the top of the vine, clip the cord from the wire, and gently deposit the vine into a bin.

When the bin is full, it is driven to the end of the field and the vines are loaded into the Hopfenpfluckmaschine (literally, hop plucking machine).

The Hopfenpfluckmaschine!!

The Hopfenpfluckmaschine!!

A master of wheels, pulleys, and German mechanical ingenuity, the Hopfenpfluckmaschine strips the vine from the string, separates the ripe hop cones from the vine, spits out mulched green vine, and pours the hops into a bin. The bin fills with green gold — fresh hops.

Some of these hops will be rushed to a brewery to make their fresh-hopped harvest ales; some will be dried as whole hops, and the rest will be dried and made into pellet hops, sealed into vacuum packs and refrigerated.

Dan Wiesen and a LOT of hops!

Dan Wiesen and a LOT of hops!

I was riding the tractor with Dan Wiesen, harvesting Cascade hops in this 9-acre field; the field also had Glacier hops and Vojdovina hops, but not yet ripe for harvest. Dan, a handsome man in his late 50’s, owns or manages almost 120 acres of hops in Leelanau County, Michigan. He is increasing his facilities and equipment so he can harvest and process hops for other growers as well, because the demand for Michigan hops is growing, and so is the acreage devoted to it.

Dan and his partners are responsible for bringing commercial hop farming to this part of Michigan. They established Empire Hop Farms in 2008, at about the time hop prices were skyrocketing due to a warehouse fire in Yakima, Wash, that destroyed a significant portion of the harvest–the Pacific Northwest grows most of the commercial hops in the US. Dan reasoned that hops might do well in Leelanau County because, like Yakima, it is at the 45th parallel, and it has a climate suitable for growing fruit trees. (I can also attest to the fact that these features are also shared with Tettnang, Bavaria, one of the major hop-growing regions of Germany, which is also noted for its apple orchards.)

Interestingly, Dan’s true passion is apples, and he considers himself first and foremost a fruit grower. Long before hops, Empire Orchards was noted for its abundant apples and cherries. Dan was not born into a farming family, but his passion for fruit cultivations led him to study agriculture, and he has always been intrigued by applying the latest and newest ideas in fruit production. Visit one of his apple orchards and you will see carefully pruned and trellised trees, bearing huge, perfect fruit, which would make any German apple grower proud. Dan used the same approach in hop farming; rather than being intimidated by the unusual growing pattern and harvesting needs of hops, he merely took a workshop with MSU (Michigan State University) and jumped right in. The farm now grows an extensive variety of hops, including Nuggett, Fuggles, Brewer’s Gold, Simcoe, Magnum, Osiris, Empire, Williamette, Cascade, Crystal, Centennial and Vojdovina. Business has been growing exponentially.

Dan’s 29 year old son Alex Wiesen has taken up the challenge and now has a major role in the farm. Alex clearly knows his craft, and his craft beer. (I can attest to this, having shared a few pints with him in Glen Arbor.) Although Michigan will never produce the volume of hops that the Yakima valley does, the goal of Empire and other growers is to meet the needs of the microbreweries in their area, who appreciate locally grown hops that are fresher and more readily available. It is not unusual to see the brewery trucks waiting for bins of fresh hops as they come off the Hopfenpfluckmaschine! Both New Holland’s Hopivore and Founder’s Harvest Ale use Empire’s fresh hops. Other breweries that rely on them include Shorts, North Peak, Right Brain, Perrin Brewing, and Saugatuck.

Empire-Hops-FestivalOn October 4, 2014, Empire held its first Hops Festival. The festival featured live music, local food, and of course local beer made with Empire hops. In spite of the weather, it was attended by over 1000 patrons! I hope to be able to attend next year’s festival, which should prove to be even bigger. It looks like Michigan hops are coming into their own.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Anita November 2, 2014 at 10:22 am

Hopfenpfluckmaschine is a great word. Thanks for an interesting and informative article.


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