By Brian Mulherin
Daily News Staff Writer
CUSTER TOWNSHIP — What are hops?
They’re a perennial plant that has bines (yes, bines) that grow up to 20 feet long. Each bine produces several flowers or cones that can be harvested, dried, ground and used as an ingredient in beer.
Where do hops come from?
As it turns out, they now come from Mason County.
Amy and Howard Haselhuhn are growing them on Amy’s grandfather’s Custer Township farm and a couple other farms are growing them in other parts of the county. Hops are native to around the 45th Parallel, or roughly Gaylord, in Europe, so Ludington at just south of the 44th Parallel is just about right for them to grow.
“It’s the hours of sunlight in June that’s the critical component,” Amy said.
See Black Creek Hops, A7
From page A1
Although the bulk of the hops farms in the U.S. are in the Pacific Northwest, there are more every year in Michigan.
What makes the Haselhuhn farm, Black Creek Hops, unique is that it is also home to the first state-certified hops processing facility.
That’s right, in a clean room constructed inside the barn where Amy’s grandfather kept the draft horses, the clean room is set aside for drying, grinding, milling and vacuum sealing hops.
What do hops do?
“There are a variety of different hops that act as different flavor elements, aroma elements and bittering elements,” said Tom Buchanan, lead brewer and production manager at Jamesport Brewing Company. “Basically hops balance out the sweetness of the malted barley. If we didn’t have hops beer would be like very, very sweet fermented water. A lot of hops can add aromas, such as grassiness or fruitiness. Hops also act as a preservative in beer.”
Buchanan made a batch of beer with Carr Creek Hops Farm’s hops last year and was hoping to use some Black Creek Hops before the drought took their crop. He said having hops farms right in the neighborhood adds to the possibilities for harvest ales, which are ales that use hops less than 24 hours old. But it’s more than that.
“I really want to use stuff from Michigan and so do the rest of the brewers in our state,” Buchanan said. “We’re very much about promoting agriculture in our state.”
The hops grown here aren’t just local, Buchanan said, they’re also really, really good.
Buchanan said he met with State Rep. Ray Franz and State Sen. Goeff Hansen on Wednesday in Lansing along with some other brewers.
“We were really letting them know that Michigan brewers want to use Michigan products,” Buchanan said. “I’m very pleased with what I’m getting from Carr Creek and I’m very anxious to see what Black Creek does this year.”
He added that he’s not the only brewer who will be looking for hops from Michigan.
“The Michigan beer industry is on fire,” Buchanan said. “There are 28 brewery startups in Michigan this year alone.”
He said there are new breweries set to open in Montague and Frankfort.
From seedling to brewer
The Haselhuhns start with seedlings, which are planted and “trained” to follow their 20-foot-high trellis. Amy selects the four best bines from each plant and trains two of them to go up each side of a piece of Coir rope, which is made of natural fibers. Once the bines are trained, they will grow up to 20 feet in a summer before being harvested in August.
The Haselhuhns are partial to the Hallertau variety of hops, an aromatic variety that comes from the same region of Germany as their families. Amy’s maiden name is Wolfe, but her ancestors used simply “Wolf” — why that’s noteworthy will become apparent later.
Hallertau hops, Amy said, are generally used in lagers.
The couple also has some bittering hops which are used in IPAs. Bittering hops are bitter, like you’d expect, but are also prized for their preservative effects.
As the bines climb the trellis, they grow side arms which carry the cones.
Hops are very water-dependent during the growing season. They require lots of water in their initial growing months early in the summer.
“Irrigation is absolutely necessary,” Amy said. In fact, after last year’s drought left them with a diminished crop, the Haselhuhns are sinking a new well this year.
The five-acre portion of their farm set aside for hops is in relatively heavy ground near the headwaters of Black Creek. Normally moisture isn’t an issue, but last year it was.
Right now there’s just one acre of hops established with another that will be planted this year. Amy said a good yield for an acre of hops is 1,000-2,000 pounds of dried hops.
Hops don’t come off the trellis dry, though. They come off in 20-foot sections that have to be trailered back to the barn and processing facility.
Harvesting the actual hops cones off of the bines by hand is a time-consuming process, so the Haselhuhns don’t do it.
They had shipped here a refurbished 40-year-old machine that’s kind of the German equivalent of a cotton gin. It came in two sections and had to be welded together, but it does the job. It takes the bines and the coir rope that they’re wrapped around and pulls off the cones.
Best of all, the brand name of the machine is “Wolf.”
You can see the machine in action at www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgoIZQHi2_8
“It would take at least a half-hour to pull the cones off of a bine — it’s too labor-intensive,” Amy said.
The cones drop into a bin that is wheeled into the processing room — that was just licensed this year and became the first licensed hops processing facility in the state.
The hops are placed in a dryer before they are ground into flakes and then milled so they’re reconstituted into pellets that look like commercial rabbit food.
From there, the hops are vacuum sealed so they can be delivered to breweries or home brewers.
The Haselhuhns will have about a dozen varieties when they’re done adding the second acre this year.