From 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., Brian Tennis is a mild-mannered IT support guy for furniture retailer Herman Miller. But after he punches out at 3, his work as a pioneer begins as he makes his way north to Omena and his real passion. It's about six acres of land that he is cultivating into something that has not been seen much in Leelanau County in more than a century-and-a-half.
First, a little history: At about the same time the first cherry tree was planted in Northern Michigan--we're talking Civil War era here--something else was taking root in these parts. Hops. Beer hops. And, for a while, the two crops did pretty well, growing side-by-side in Michigan's soil. But, then, something happened to change all that. It was called the hop louse, according to the Michigan Crops Research Guide produced by MSU Libraries. And, true to its name, the little critters pretty much loused up Michigan's hops industry. Hops found better conditions out west, and cherry trees grew to dominate Northern Michigan.
Today, though, if you look very closely through the rows and rows of cherry trees, you'll see something else creeping up vines on Michigan farmland. You have to look really, really closely because there aren't too many of them. Yet. And that's where Tennis and a few other farmers come into the picture. They recently formed the Michigan Hop Alliance to pool their small resources and become significant suppliers to the craft beer movement that is developing passionate followers across Michigan and the country.
So far, the alliance comprises five farmers in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. Most do it because they love to farm, love to drink beer--or both. But the alliance was formed with an eye to the future by supplying hops to craft breweries in Michigan or even nationwide.
"So if one person has five acres, they can get some of what the brewery needs," Tennis says. "But if there's an entity like Michigan Hop Alliance that has 19 or 20 acres, it's a lot easier."
It's not that they're looking to get rich, but they do want to help revive hop farming in Michigan, and do something a little different with their land--in a sustainable, organic way.
"A farmer never gets rich. He just gets a bigger field," Tennis says. "And that's really our mindset here. We've got maybe 16, 17 acres that we can plant. And that's really what we're going to do. Just take the money and reinvest it into more hops, infrastructure."
One piece of infrastructure he's proud of is a purchase of a new picking machine, imported from Germany, which will separate the cones from the bines. This little bit of automation will turn them into more of a professional operation rather than just a few friends playing farmer.
"Last year, we did it by hand and it's monotonous. There's no way you can do it more than a quarter acre," says Joel Mulder, a hops farmer from the Traverse City area. "One, it's not financially feasible, and two, it just takes an hour to pick a pound of hops, basically, and when hops are going for $6 to $8 to $10, there's no way you can pay somebody that." And, adds Tennis, it's a sure way to wear out your friends.
So, in just a little over two years, the Michigan Hop Alliance is automated and has even grander plans of someday opening a craft brewery or two in Leelanau County. "We would like to do a really small microbrewery up here in Leelanau using just local ingredients--local hops, local wheat."
So, what exactly is a craft brewery? Well, says Mulder, there's the official way of looking at it, and that involves volume. Over a certain amount of barrels and you're too big to call yourself craft. But then there's another aspect to it. It's less of a science and more of an art. Craft beer aficionados treat it more like wine. They care about things like aroma. You know, you drink a Bud anywhere and it's always the same. With a craft brew, you don't know what you'll get from batch to batch, and that's what the customers are after--the nuance.
One thing that is important to both Tennis and Mulder is the need to be organic. The only other local hop processor is on the Old Mission peninsula, and they are not organic. So, launching their own organic facility is part of the appeal of the alliance for Mulder.
"It's something I believe in," says Mulder, a former science teacher who is now a stay-at-home dad. "Agriculture, in general, is far too chemical-driven, far too petroleum-based. … We're destroying this planet quickly and we need to stop."
Agriculture, in general, would benefit from lots of smaller farms, rather than megafarms, Mulder says. "It worked great in the '40s," he says. "But agriculture has gotten away from us."
Farming, Mulder says, is his way of getting "back in touch with the way we were built to live on this planet."
From Tennis's point of view, he was simply looking for a way to plant something on his expensive land in Leelanau County that might become profitable. "Cherries are iffy, sometimes at best, and it's a very fickle crop," Tennis says. "We didn't want to plant grapes. So we figured we'd give hops a shot. That, and we're all craft beer fans. We love Michigan beer, and that's why we're planting hops."
Right now, their customers include New Holland Brewery and its Hopivore harvest ale, the West Harvest Ale by Founders and Fenian's Irish Stout by Jolly Pumpkin on Old Mission--along with "countless home brewers." Shorts Brewery has also expressed interest, Tennis says.
It is seeing the hops through the entire process, from planting to drinking, that appeals to Tennis and keeps him going.
"It's just rewarding," Tennis says. "You come out here and …" Tennis pauses, looks out over his farm, as rain pours down. "Farming is a pain in the ass and a lot of things go wrong," he continues. "But when things go right it's very rewarding. Actually to taste your product in a beer, that was excellent."
Howard Lovy is a Traverse City based freelance writer who specializes in technology and innovation. He can be reached via email. Brian Confer is the managing photographer of Northwest Michigan's Second Wave.