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Jim Sluyter: Hop To It!Print

Food & Farming | October 30, 2008 | By Jim Sluyter

I made my first batch of homebrew in 1975 or so. It was pretty bad. In fact, the guy I learned from, who in turn had learned from his dad, didn’t know a few key steps. Like how to carbonate the swill. But over the years, I figured out a thing or two, and by the early 1990’s (ok, I am a slow learner) I was making a respectable brew.

For a number of reasons unrelated to the topic at hand, I didn’t make any beer last year-maybe the first whole year off brewing since that early, flat, tasteless experiment.

As it happens, quite a few folks either didn’t brew last year, or cut way back. Why? The worldwide shortage of hops.

Back in the day, hops were a minor cost factor in a batch of homebrew. Hops are crucial, though: They are what makes beer, well, beer-they add flavor, aroma and a characteristic bitterness.

But a few years ago there was a “perfect storm” of hops problems, from ongoing reductions in acreage over the years, to a devastatingly bad year for hop crop production almost everywhere in the world, to a 2006 fire in a huge hop extract warehouse, the availability of hops nosedived. The price, of course, shot up. And availability of any kind of hops, let alone a favorite variety, became uncertain.

Even if you are not a home brewer, you may still have noticed the effects. Craft brew prices have started to climb.

Some predict that 2009 will be even worse.

No wonder a home-brewing friend who saw the plump, green hops on our vine got so glassy-eyed. “Can I have some?” he asked, before he even knew what kind they were. “Cascades,” I told him, and he nearly swooned. Cascades is favorite with home brewers.

I had been bad. The hops were past their prime, and picking nice ones took longer than it would have only a week or so earlier. Still, we soon had a pound of hops, enough for several five-gallon batches of beer.

The point of all this?

Hops are easy to grow in Michigan. They have a ready, and increasing, market. And there is a training session coming up that will teach you the basics. MSU Extension is offering a daylong workshop on hops production on December 17 at the NW Michigan Horticultural Research Station, northwest of Traverse City, on the Leelanau Peninsula. Call MSU Extension in Leelanau County, at 231-256-9888, for details.

At 20 bucks, including lunch-and a beer-tasting clinic-it looks like a bargain.