It started with a haircut. While Graham Kelly was getting a trim at Salon Saloon in Traverse City (they snip while you sip hand-crafted beer from the adjacent Right Brain Brewery), brewery-salon owner Russell Springsteen told Kelly how the worldwide shortage of hops was cramping Right Brain’s beer-making style. In one year Springsteen saw price of hops, a conelike flower that’s an essential ingredient in brewing, go from $4.50 a pound to $24.00 a pound, with some suppliers saying simply, “sorry, we’re out.”
All beers need hops, a bitter preserving component used especially as a flavor ingredient in ESB’s and IPA’s. Right Brain Brewery was rationing their hops, not making as many hop-rich IPA’s as they—and their customers—would like.
Graham Kelly went with his new ’do back to his farmland on Old Mission peninsula, did his homework and decided a field he’d intended for grapes might work for hops. He combined his field and energies with two other farmers’ (Rob Manigold and Steve Sobkowski) and the newly formed Old Mission Hops Exchange planted the first crop of hops in Northern Michigan in at least 75 years.
Hops can grow in every state, and once did. At the turn of the last century, farmers grew hops on Old Mission for local beer-making, and even some lingering wild hops can be found on the peninsula. The finicky flower hasn’t been raised as a crop here since Prohibition—difficulty growing it due to downy mildew left the concentration of hops in the hands of just a few growers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.
Kelly started with mail-order rhizomes, built trellises out of telephone poles and hand-trained 3,000 plants to grow in their preferred clockwise manner, all the while following an intense watering and fertilization schedule.
Kelly was blown away to see a verdant crop this fall.
“Hops are legendary Jack-in-the-Beanstalk growers,” says Kelly. “But I didn’t believe it until I saw them grow a foot in one day. By mid-July they were flying out of the ground.”
In early September, Kelly and Springsteen organized a neighborly hops harvest, with 40 friends and supporters, many of whom had never seen a hops flower before. Back in the day, hops harvesting was considered a healthy, gentleman- and gentlewoman-ly affair and Springsteen brought back that feel with this revival harvest, albeit with 24 gallons of Right Brain brews and a batch of his fabulous Sloppy Joes.
Buy the Microbrew Issue Now! Read about the brains behind Right Brain Brewery, chart your own microbrew tour, learn about Jolly Pumpkin and Northern Michigan hops!
Right Brain’s brewer John Niedermaier is still in awe that he gets to brew beer with fresh, aromatic hops grown right in the North.
“In a dried hops beer, the bitter flavor is sharp and focused,” says Niedermaier. “Beer made with fresh, or what’s called wet hops, should be really delicate, subtle, with a nice hop aroma you cannot get any other way.”
The debut beer made with Old Mission-grown and hand-harvested hops, Karma Palace Wet Hop Ale, will be unveiled tonight (Friday, September 12th) at Right Brain Brewery with $3.00 pints from 4 p.m. to close!
Also this fall, look for Right Brain’s Sweet Corn Cream Ale made with Altonen ears, and a Hallo-giving Pumpkin Ale made with local pie pumpkins Niedermaier roasted himself and spiced with cloves, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg. Niedermaier will be brewing with vacuum-packed Old Mission hops through this winter.
Right Brain Brewery is in Traverse City’s Warehouse District at 221 Garland Street, 231-944-1239, rightbrainbrewery.com
More About Northern Michigan Beers
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- Video: Traverse City Brewers Show You How It’s Done
- The Creative World of Traverse City’s Right Brain Brewery
- Follow the Hops Trail to Northern Michigan Microbrews
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- Jolly Pumpkin Sets Up Shop on Old Mission
- Brewie File: Tom Buchanan
- Tap into Traverse City’s Brew Pubs
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