Something's Brewing: I Heard It Through The Hopvine

I was an early adopter with the craft brewing revolution, one of those cultists who scoured beer menus as early as the 1980s in hopes of finding a Samuel Adams or a Sierra Nevada. Ever since, I have consumed just about nothing but, beer-wise.

My regular neighborhood tavern in Chicago, The Bar on Buena, has an awesome selection of American and imported beers, as did The Reef, my local during my last several years in Washington, D.C. And the beers I like the best are "hoppy," meaning they are brewed with a lot of hops -- those vine-grown, cone-shaped flowers that provide beer with a degree of bitterness and flavor profiles that range from herbal to floral to resin.

Yet until last month, I had never seen a live hop plant, largely because, for more than a century, nearly all hops in the United States had been grown in the northwestern states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. That is changing, though, as still-small numbers of growers, inspired in part of the rise of local craft breweries, have been hopping up (sorry) in several states.

One of these is Michigan (a state to which I have strong ties as a graduate of Michigan State University). I have become familiar with a new enterprise called Hop Head Farms, located in the southwestern part of the state. This farm -- located in the village of Hickory Corners, not too far from Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids and Lansing -- is following in the footsteps of the pioneering growers near Traverse City up north, who took the first steps in reviving an agricultural sector that thrived in the state during the late 19th century but then disappeared.

I learned about the farm through a contact in Chicago's craft beer world, and have since visited three times and gotten to know the principals in the project. Nunzino Pizza, the CEO of Hop Head Farms, is a longtime agricultural commodities trader whose experience as an investor in Chicago's successful Revolution micro-brewery led him to explore the idea of a major new effort to grow hops to supply the Midwest's booming craft beer industry. Jeff and Bonnie Steinman are a married couple who are horticulturists -- Jeff with a degree in the subject from Michigan State -- whose love for craft beer prompted them to start growing hops themselves, first in a garden plot and then on three-fifths of an acre as part of a grant-funded organic hop project.

The three met last year have built out a 15-acre hop farm on which there will be 15,000 plants of six varieties of hops. This short turnaround is no mean trick, because a hop farm is a pretty elaborate contraption. There are 830 tall wooden posts -- the first time I visited in March, before planting season began, it looked like a giant telephone pole farm -- which support wires and ropes that will form the trellis upon which the baby plants just put in the ground will grow into mighty vines.

It is way to early to know how much of a yield the first year's crop will produce. But it is very cool for me to have the opportunity to watch an operation such as this grow from scratch. And while the folks at Hop Head Farms are currently preoccupied with completing the heavy lifting of the first year's planting, they plan eventually to provide tours of the farm. If you too are a beer nut and want to get up close and personal with some hops, it would be worth a visit -- especially since it would be an excuse to visit some of the excellent craft breweries and brewpubs located a close and scenic drive away. (For Chicago readers, Hickory Corners is about a three-hour drive.)

I'll keep you posted on the farm. In the meantime, here are some photos from yesterday's visit.

This is a view of the posts that anchor the trellis system. The soil shows that the weather has been very dry in the region, but the farm has a drip irrigation system.

Some of the trellis ropes already have been strung.

And here is what a brand-new hop plant looks like. If all goes well, it will be a lot bigger soon.

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