Long before Washington’s Yakima Valley became synonymous with American hops, the vast majority of American hop production took place in the East. While the Pacific Northwest cultivates all but a small percent of American hops, hop production is beginning to see a resurgence in other areas.
Leading the way is Michigan, now the fourth largest hops producing state. While its 650 acres in 2016 is still minuscule even when compared to the smallest PNW state (Idaho with 5,648), that acreage represents a 103% increase from 2015. Hop farms are popping up across the state, particularly in the southwest and near Traverse City.
Hop Head Farms has established itself as the leader in Michigan hops, with farms strung throughout the southwest corner of the state, interspersed with apple orchards and vineyards. I even pass by the Hilltop farm on my way from Sister Lakes to St. Joseph. The local hops have been a point of pride for brewers in the state and have leant a unique sense of place to Michigan beers brewed with them.
Last year Founders released Palm Reader as a way to showcase Michigan hops. The 5.4% pale ale uses only Michigan-grown Crystal and Zuper-Saazer hops. Its name is a reference to the way Michiganders use their hands to describe where they live in the state and the beer is only available in Michigan.
Hops, like grapes, have their own sense of terroir. A Cascade grown in Michigan is going to have a different flavor than one grown in the Yakima Valley. The Zuper-Saazer used in Palm a Reader is the perfect example of this. Hailing from the Czech Republic, saaz typically has an earthy, herbal and spicy aroma. Think Czech pilsner and you know the hop exactly. The Zuper-Saazers planted in Michigan by Hop Head Farms are nothing like that. There’s still a touch of that familiar spice but the Michigan hop leans much more towards fruit aromas.
Palm Reader is all at once familiar and different. The faint hint of earthiness and spice evokes a pilsner, yet there’s also the distinctly American presence of orange and grapefruits. The light body is dry and the hops provide a slight bitterness. In a way it reminds me of an Americanized take on a Czech Pilsner, from the variation on the noble hop to the easy-drinking body. Holding this beer in one hand and the other hand beside it offers a map to an exciting future in American hops.