A good beer’s story never begins in the brewer’s tank. Every hop, grain of barley and drop of water in that tank comes from one place: The Earth. Without the fields and the farmers that work to sow them, our mugs would be empty.
“We need the beer-buying public to realize that beer starts in a field, not in a brewery, but there’s a large disconnect,” said Erik May, president and owner of Pilot Malt House. “When people go and drink a beer, it never really crosses their mind that this is an agriculture-based product; that it’s grown.”
Until recently, local beer agriculture was fairly slim pickings. West Michigan went without its own malt house until 2012 when Pilot Malt arrived on the scene. In those three years, however, they’ve convinced farmers all around the state to dedicate over 1,000 acres of Michigan soil to barley and the numbers keep growing. Every year it becomes easier for brewers to make a true Michigan beer, especially with hop farms breaking ground at an alarming rate.
“Only a few years ago we wouldn’t have seen but a handful of beers featuring Michigan hops. Now you could ask any [Michigan] brewer out of two hundred and probably a third of them use Michigan hops in some fashion. It’s grown tremendously,” said Jeff Steinman, co-founder of Hop Head Farms.
Steinman and his wife and co-founder, Bonnie, brought in 53,000 pounds of Michigan hops last year at Hop Head through their own land and a collaborative web of network growers. It’s this rapid growth that’s turning the heads of beer-drinkers all over.
“As hopyards keep popping up, people are becoming more and more aware that beer is actually an agricultural product and even has some agritourism value,” Steinman said. “As they visit these breweries and get to know the farms they work with, people want to know where they are and see it in person.”
Whenever local ingredients are utilized, it’s up to the brewers to tell their story and it’s becoming increasingly popular to do so. New Holland Brewing is on track to brew exclusively with Michigan agriculture in their pub by 2016. Rockford Brewing Company’s rotating Permaculture series makes great use of local hops and malt, along with whatever crop has been most recently harvested from Michigan farms, including plums, rhubarb, maple syrup and butternut squash.
Seth Rivard of Rockford Brewing recognizes the importance of telling the story, often advertising exactly which farms each Michigan ingredient comes from.
“It helps enormously when breweries and restaurants shout out the farms,” Rivard said. “And it’s a great discussion topic. It’s fun that often people who come in here know someone in that industry.”
Knowing where your beer comes from isn’t just an exciting narrative, it’s important to health, economy and culture according to local growers. “We’re all taught as kids to not take candy or food from strangers, but our world’s food system has gotten away from that,” May said.
Still, May understands that the growing local movement isn’t enough to sustain a business alone - quality counts too.
“We can’t hang our hat on breweries buying from us just because we’re local,” May said. “We have to have a comparable product with a good story. We come in a bit more expensive than what they’re used to paying but they’re also buying the narrative. If we were all fixed on price, we would never buy craft beer.”
Fortunately for Michigan, the quality is there, making it easy for local brewers and growers to collaborate. The state’s unique terroir — the flavor profile imparted on crops by local ecology — allows brewers to define new exclusive styles.
“Some of the hops in Michigan are turning heads around the nation, like our Chinook,” Rivard said. “Some brewers complain about efficiency, but for us, the trade-off is that you have an amazing unique flavor profile that you can’t get from any other malt or hop and that’s worth it.”
Brewers love to sit down with local growers and fellow craftsmen to brainstorm how they can work together to bring new beers with Michigan-exclusive flavors to the table. It becomes more and more of a partnership every year.
“Working with Michigan craft brewers, it is very collaborative and collegiate,” Steinman said.
“They’re used to working together — it’s more like cooperation than competition. I find that brewers are eager to come up with something special with us, using our hops to make a very distinct beer.”
May and Rivard agreed with the sentiment, describing the industry as a “band of brothers.” Local beer is bringing people from across the state together. It might not be cheap and it might not be easy, but crafting a true Michigan beer has proven itself to be rewarding in its kinship, quality, and above all, innovation.