The Inside Look at Top Hops Farm
Utilizing local products and ingredients whenever possible has always been important to us here at Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. One local company that we have started partnering with more and more is Top Hops Farm in Goodrich, MI.
As of right now we have produced beers using their Chinook, Tahoma, Cascade, and Cashmere hops. We recently had the pleasure of taking a trip out to the Top Hops Farm to see exactly where our hops are coming from. Below you can find pictures of Top Hops Farm and an extremely interesting and insightful Q&A section from Sean Trowbridge, one of the Top Hops owners.
What interested you in getting into the hop farming industry?
The stars aligned for us around 2011/2012 and we were lucky enough to see our opportunity and pull the trigger. Some of the major factors included my father and business partner had just retired from engineering and already had a small piece of farm land, I had been in the “Professional” world for several years and realized I wasn’t too interested in climbing the corporate ladder, we had been trialing hops for several years already on a smaller scale, and the craft beer industry was young and booming in Michigan. The beginning of our farm also included pigs, turkeys, bees, and large vegetable plantings, however, it was the hops that seemed most viable.
Other than that, I have always been into the great outdoors, nature, growing things, and in general being outside. I obtained a degree from CMU in Biology and Natural Sciences and have always been interested in plants and plant science since a young age. Hops are an incredibly interesting plant and fun to grow!
Could you tell us a little background information on Top Hops?
Top Hops LLC was started in 2012 by partners Mark and Sean Trowbridge (and their wives Mel & Jen). The business plan included slowly building ourselves up to a fully sustainable family hop farm business. Similar in nature to a “European” family hop farm business of say 15-20 acres vs. a Pacific Northwest style several hundred-acre or more operation.
We started with 5 acres and a picking machine and invested into ourselves each year until present day where we are at 17 acres of hops with brand new, hops only picking and processing facilities, and quality picking, drying, pelletizing, packaging, and storage equipment. We have the capacity to harvest and process approximately 30 acres of hops at current time.
The farm employs the two partners, a part time mechanic, a part time general maintenance helper, and in the spring and fall, approximately 20 part time staff for field work and harvesting that are usually local students or friends in need of short term work.
How many varieties do you grow and what specific varieties?
We currently grow 7 varieties of Hops with an 8th variety being added this summer/fall.
An unnamed Neomexicanus
What do you find important to the success of both growing and selling hops?
Always stay busy! The hops like to see their masters each day (an old hop farmer saying) and we the farmers like to see our customers as often as possible as well. Always scouting the hopyards, always learning and discussing growing with other commercial farmers, and always in communication with our customers. I believe we do everything we can to produce both food safe and top quality hops, however, I believe most of our customers are buying into us just as much as they are seeking out our top quality hops. We aim to stay with the small family farm aspect with no intentions of incorporating or adding partners. The grower to brewer relationships we have is an important key to our success. The grower can know anything they desire about our hops and operation, and we listen to what the brewers are looking for, wanting, or questions, etc. regarding the hops or what we could do better or offer additionally. At the end of the day, we aim to create friendships with the breweries we supply to with the goal of long term, mutually beneficial relationships.
In your opinion, how does the future look for the hop industry, especially in Michigan?
Well I could write volumes on this. It is very interesting. Even on a micro scale, that being Michigan, we are very much involved in global hop business. Craft sector is growing in some regions and slowing in others. Global hop producers are in different levels of hop volumes. Europe is pretty well contracted with little oversupply, same with New Zealand and Australia. The Pacific Northwest on the other hand has grown something like 50% in acreage over the past 5 years. Crazy expansion out there, it is tapering back a bit but still plenty of new hop acreage going in the ground. Lots of huge national breweries long on certain hop varieties and the ever shifting flavor demands of the consumer make for a lot of moving targets with US brokers sitting on lots of volume in cold storage. I currently think that there is a high volume of hop availability causing a very strong spot market at the time along with lowered pricing and little need for brewers to contract most varieties. This is cyclical and happens often enough in the long term market. Prices go up, more hops go in, too many hops, prices go back down and hops come out of production. The PNW very often takes hops in or out of production at a scale that is larger than all of the hops grown in Michigan put together.
Back to Michigan, I think we are going to see a lot of smaller 1-5 acre type farms struggle, especially if they do not have many hop varieties and ones they do have are a dime a dozen and not seen as shiny and new which is what so many brewers are looking for these days (looking at you cascade!). The amount of effort and $ to swap out varieties is really tough if you do not have enough other hop volume to lean on. We are even hearing some of the larger farms are putting some acreage on hold and not stringing some fields this year to adjust their volumes to meet needs on specific varieties. Small farmers with the right varieties can sell at a profitable point and be successful however the same farmer with less desirable varieties might be in trouble. Also, surplus from larger Michigan farms can drive down price and make it even harder for the smaller guys. In terms of production as a whole, Michigan sits around 800-900 acres and I don’t see that going up significantly any time soon until the larger growers see what’s going on in the market for awhile… As they grow so much, they are competing with the majors on prices and for customers which is no small feat with current market conditions. Additionally, the 800 or so acres grown in the state can more than supply ALL breweries in Michigan if the top two producers were not included which means competition for sales outside of Michigan were the “local” aspect isn’t really an option for added demand. We are all striving for great quality and food safety, and I think that anyone who has been in the business here in Michigan for more than a few years should be doing pretty well by now in that regards. Hard work, good relationships, and top quality product will be key to success here in Michigan in the future.
What separates Top Hops farm from other hop farms?
We are a small family farm that has all equipment necessary to grow, harvest, process (pelletize), store, and deliver hops to breweries of any size and with significant quantity and exceptional quality. We take care of our hops from soil to boil and put everything we have into it. We are more than a few acre farm that has to outsource their harvesting/processing and usually sales, and we are still small enough to keep the business relationships personal on a farmer to brewer level without sales persons or corporate business policy getting in the way. We look to have our customers feeling they are in a relaxed and enjoyable business relationship with our farm and generally all contracts are simply a gentleman’s agreement. No pages and pages of legalities, no “checking with corporate to see if we can do that deal” Just down to earth people working to supply other down to earth people with top quality local ingredients at a fair price. Brewers are always welcome to the farm, and we host an industry event for them just before harvest with full pig roast and the whole nine yards. We also donate hops to homebrew groups and events and have homebrew clubs to the farm for tours in the summer.
What is your mission or goals for Top Hops Farm?
Top Quality, Top Service, Top Hops!
We strive to operate a fun and professional commercial hop operation, managed in a family manner that retains great relationships with our brewing customers through transparency, honesty, and a top quality product.