September 04, 2013 - Atlas Twp.-Mark and Mel Trowbridge purchased 55 acres of farmland just south of Goodrich about five years ago, thinking they would use the land to make money someday.
"I don't have 200 or 300 acres to raise corn or wheat on," said Mark, a retired Delphi Engineer.
So about two years ago the Trowbridge Farms formed the hops yards of "Top Hops," and are just one of a growing number of farmers who are now trying to cultivate beer's key flavoring ingredient.
"My son Sean has a degree in biology from Central Michigan University," said Mark. "He's a plant man—so someday we hope to turn this operation over to him full time."
Top Hops started with 120 plants, then expanded to 5,000 plants in 2013— spread between 400 22-foot-tall poles connected with steel cable from the tops, all on about five acres. The hops grow from a rhizome, which is essentially a piece of root purchased from a grower in the West Michigan city of Zeeland.
This month the Trowbridge Farms is nearing their first harvest.
"Hops can be difficult to grow and we have an irrigation system that waters every three days in our heavy soil here in southeastern Michigan," he said. "Hops is very labor intensive—over the past year we hired seasonal labor to cut weeds near the plants. Hops grow better in cooler climates like in the Pacific Northwest and some in northern Michigan with less disease-causing humidity."
The hops are actually flowers, from the plant humulus lupulus. Beer brewers are most concerned with the sticky yellow lupulin glands inside the flower. Currently, Trowbridge Farms grows three varieties of hops— cascade, centennial and Chinook. Each type of hops will produce a different flavor of beer.
"Right now we are about two weeks away from harvest—there's a window of about 10 days to two weeks to pick the hops," he said. "We are looking for about a 20 percent yield in our first year; next year, 60 percent; and full production in about three years as the plants mature—that would be about 2,000 pounds of hops per acre."
The work on the hops plants, which are perennials, is very intensive, he added.
"There's a real problem with mildew causing root-rot," he said. "We really want to be a part of the supply chain for beer production. Hops are similar to the regions grapes are for wines."
After harvest the hops are dried, pelletized and packaged, then frozen until they're ready to use. However, some breweries use fresh or wet hops for a unique taste.
"Michigan-based brewers are providing a variety of beers for some unique tastes," said Trowbridge. "We are family-owned and utilize vendors from Michigan—from the poles to the 50,000 feet of wire to drip irrigation, it's all from our state. While only about 10 percent of all beers come from small local brewers, we are confident southeastern Michigan will produce a unique taste and be a part of the supply chain."
Interest in the local township hops is already growing.
Adam Beratta, beer czar and part owner of 51 North Brewing Company, 21 North Broadway, Lake Orion, is eager for the hops to mature. He has made several trips to the Trowbridge Farms.
"I'd like to see more barley and wheat growing in the region for brewing," said Beratta, with more than 12 years of brewing experience. "Not only would production costs be reduced, but also there's extra revenue for the state. We'll use the Trowbridge hops and we're excited about the next few years of production as the plants mature."
Last weekend Beratta brewed a small amount of English Pale Ale with the Trowbridge hops.
"It was a delicate taste and excellent," he said.
"I've learned over the years that every area that raises hops has a unique taste due to the acidity of the soil and the atmosphere. There's a lot of potential right here in our own state for some outstanding beers."