Although Founders Brewing Co. has been utilizing wet hops in its Harvest Ale since the mid-2000s, the 2018 incarnation was the first year that all of the hops for the annual release were sourced from the brewery’s home state of Michigan.

In order to give that fact a bit more recognition, Founders invited a small number of media members to its brewery in Grand Rapids, Mich. in order to show off three different local hop farms that provided hops for this year’s version of the ale: MI Local Hops, Hop Head Farms and Pure Mitten Hops.

While all three are relatively small by hop farm standards—even downright puny compared to some of the larger farms in Washington’s Yakima Valley, where the majority of hops are grown in the U.S.—each had its own vision on how to do things and each added a little bit of authenticity to the final product.

According to Founders, one of the main reasons it chose to work exclusively with Michigan growers was a simple matter of time: not only the time it took to get the hops to the brewery, but also how old the hops were when they arrived.

Before this year, the brewery had various freshly-harvested hops used in the ale shipped overnight in refrigerated containers from the Yakima Valley, there were still issues with the freshness that impacted the final quality of the beer. This led to the conclusion that the brewery should be looking to use hops that are grown locally, even if it the costs associated with the beer.

However, Founders is not the only brewery to rely on Michigan growers more heavily; in fact, a report from the Hop Growers of America earlier this year indicates that massive increase in the amount of acreage utilized for hops in the state over the past four years, starting at around 300 acres in 2014 and ending up at approximately 810 total acres by the end of 2017.

MI Local Hops

After meeting the four other journalists and the representatives from Founders in the hotel lobby, we all climbed into a van and traveled to the first hop farm on our tour: MI Local Hops, located about 140 miles north of Grand Rapids in a town named Williamsburg. The 220-acre farm is actually located on the site of a former golf course that had vacant for seven years, and this year was the company’s third harvest which spans from approximately August to September.

We were led around the farm—while we did not know it at the time, MI Local Hops would be the largest of the three farms we visited and has six full-time employees, a number that swells to about 30 total workers during harvest season—by Mike Moran, who was thrilled to show off the company’s processing, pelletizing, blending, and cold storage capabilities.

However, by the time we started walking through large fields of Cascade hop vines, the rain became so heavy that everyone was forced to abandon the fields for the shelter of the company’s 30,000 square foot processing plant.

While we were drying off and watching workers do their jobs, Moran told us that even though rain like what we experienced is not unusual this time of year, wet vines are virtually impossible to process, which means that any inclement weather slows down production significantly.

He also explained that the company’s harvesting facility is capable of processing over 350,000 pounds of hops during any given harvest season using two WOLF 1000 hop-picking machines as well as state of the art driers and conditioning systems.

Hop Head Farms

After leaving Williamsburg, our next destination took us to the oldest of the three farms we visited: Hop Head Farms located almost 250 miles south in the town of Baroda. However, while this particular facility opened in 2011, it is only one of a number of different farms that Hop Head Farms operates across the country. 

Like MI Local Hops, this farm had a previous life, in this case as a concord grape vineyard. However, according to our guide Matt Gura, there is one hop variety that makes up the bulk of the hops at this facility: Crystal hops. In fact, this year marked the first time that some of Hop Head’s Crystal hops were used in Founders’ Harvest Ale.

One of the most fascinating conversations we had with Gura was about the process of drying hops: not only how important it can be when it comes to the final product, but also how much has changed over the years. Gura told our group that there were times he spent all night in the processing facility on the farm sleeping on a couch and playing video games, just so that he could make sure to keep the temperature exactly correct throughout the drying process.

Gura then took us not only the holding area for the newly dried hops but also the packaging area, where he cut open one of the newly packaged bales to show off how the dried plants were doing. Rubbing the small pods between his fingers, he explained that they were looking not only for color and texture, but also how each bud smelled and the amount of oil that they leave behind when he rubs them between his hands.

Pure Mitten Hops

The final stop on our trip was Pure Mitten Hops founded by Morrie and Mary Dieleman, located in the town of Coopersville.  Although the family-owned operation encompasses only 11 acres of hop growing land at the moment, it has been in business since 2014 and prides itself on using more “old school” techniques.

For example, it takes three people to harvest each bine by hand in a time-intensive process that involves cutting each individual bine from the overhead wire it is attached to while growing, pulling them down and laying them on a flatbed truck before repeating the process.

Once that flatbed is full, the bines are moved to another vehicle, where they are driven to the processing facility where they are placed into a separator that pulls the hop cones from vines.

However, as intensive as that is, the process does not end there. The separator can only do so much, and as a result, there are numerous leaves and bits of stem left over when the hop cones are dropped onto a conveyer belt.

That is where some other members of the family sit and pick through the resulting mess, taking out any parts of the plant that don’t belong before the cones are packed into bags that are—surprise!—stitched closed by hand.

While very different in size, ownership and techniques, each of the three hop farms we visited all shared a common goal: to provide their clients with the freshest, most flavorful hops possible, thus leading to a higher quality final product.

Founders Brewing Co. paid for my travel expenses associated with this trip.