(WZZM)- When it comes to crops in Michigan, hops are fairly new. But what comes out of it, is not.
Beer dates back thousands of years and remains a favorite beverage to this day.
"It's huge. I don't think anyone realizes how much work goes into making beer," says Ian Mortensen. He's one of the many entrepreneurs in Michigan, hoping to cash-in on the popularity of craft beer.
Jeff and Bonnie Steinman are too. They own "Hop Head Farms" near Kalamazoo. "The first year, we're really happy," says Bonnie.
Mortenson is building "Hopyards of Kent," near Greenville. "We started this back in December. When we started, it was a big cornfield. There was nothing here."
One of the first steps in growing hops is installing the supports. "Poles are arranged to hold the weight of the hops at full height and maturity."
When the structure is in place, the field is cultivated. Then, it's time to put seven thousand hop plants in the ground. There is no machinery; it's all done by hand.
Over the next four months, the plants will be treated with care. "They can grow anywhere up to a foot a day," says Mortensen. If all goes well, he will sell the hops to a local brewery. But, as the months go by, the hot, dry summer, takes its toll. The plants don't do as well as Ian had hoped.
Over at Hop Head Farms, it was a better year. The Steinman's had an extensive background in horticulture and has been experimenting with hops for the past four years. Part of knowing when it's time to harvest, is having a good sense of smell. "First, they smell like pine trees, there's a greenness to them. They smell fruity and ripe. Then, if you wait too long, they smell like sweaty socks."
Fortunately in this case, the hops are just right. The hop is what adds flavor to the beer. It gives it a bitter or tangy taste. "In Wisconsin, they go for a maltier beer. We go for the hops-wallop here in Michigan."
During harvest, usually in September, the vines are cut down, loaded on a truck and taken to a processing area. After drying out for a few days, the hop is sent to Bell's in Kalamazoo. Established in 1985, it's one of the original craft breweries in Michigan. "The beer we're brewing today is 100 percent Michigan grown ingredients," says specialty brewer, Zeke Bogan.
Bogan has already started the mashing process. It removes the color, sugar, and flavor from the grains. The next step is boiling the mixture and adding more hops. The final step is fermentation. In this case, it will be called "Harvest Ale".
Three weeks later, the beer is flowing from the tap. It's one of the many craft beers at Bell's Eccentric Cafe. The chalk board spells out the alcohol content of each beer. Some of them pack a punch. "Higher alcohol, fuller body, more hops, more aromatic, more bitter," says Bogan.
Today, there are over 115 craft breweries in Michigan. According to the Michigan Brewers Guild, the industry brings $133 million to the economy. For the Steinman's, growing hops has become a full-time job. "Everything is allocated or sold, so that's a good thing. It's a way of living and a passion. It's everything we ever dreamed of."