State's craft beer craze reaching the thumb

 More than 160 breweries can be found statewide

By Nicole Hayden
Times Herald

PORT HURON, Mich. (AP) — Giving up a city life for mud boots and mosquito bites, Eric Dusci has clocked hours of physical labor in the spirit of local beer.

Dusci, president of American Patriot Hops in Smiths Creek, farms hops, the ingredient that packs beer with flavor.

“I love farming hops because I enjoy craft beer and a quality-made brew,” Dusci said. “I look forward to the day when I can taste the hops that I grew in a final product, which will be later this year.”

Dusci is not alone in his love of craft beer. Michigan’s hops industry is growing, the (Port Huron) Times Herald reported.

“Seven years ago there weren’t any commercial hops farms in Michigan,” said Rob Sirrine, Michigan State University Extension community food systems educator. “(Michigan) is close to 400 acres (of hops) in the state, up from around 250 acres last year.”

Sirrine said more than 160 breweries can be found statewide.

That rapid growth has finally begun to reach the Thumb area.

“The hops industry is just beginning to grow in the Thumb area,” said Dan Casey, Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County chief executive officer, “A lot of farmers are just beginning to venture into the industry, and it takes at least two years to harvest a crop.”

While the love of craft beer seems to be present, Casey said it’s too soon to tell how the industry will take root in the Thumb.

“It’s too soon to say whether the industry will take off in our area. The more local breweries that open, the greater demand for hops,” Casey said. “I think interest is growing.”

“Michigan is No. 5 in the country from the number of breweries we have,” Casey said. “The Grand Rapids area is a particularly strong market; from there it spread to Holland and Traverse City. The industry in metro-Detroit began to explode over the last couple years.”

And now, that slow spread of craft beer from the west side of the state is taking root in the Port Huron area.

Casey said that ThumbCoast Brewing Co. is the first real brewery to open its doors in Port Huron. Sirrine said he recently drank some great beer at Lexington Brewing Co. in Lexington. Both are hoping the two companies will spark a new trend in the Thumb.

“Breweries and brew pubs have a very loyal following,” Casey said. “People will travel great distances for festivals. You combine that with water sports, and you have a natural tourist attraction. A successful brewery can put a small town on the map. So I find the industry to be fascinating.”

Casey said the Economic Development Alliance is currently working with a few other breweries that are considering locating in the Port Huron area.

“I believe the industry is about to take off in our area, and that will create opportunities for hops farmers,” Casey said.

Sirrine said in order to keep the brewery and hops industries thriving in Michigan, consumers have to continue to support the idea of buying local.

“Buying local keeps money flowing in Michigan,” Sirrine said. “It increases Michigan jobs, supports Michigan farms and families, and I would wager the best customers for brewers are those that grow for the craft beer industry. Michigan residents are more likely to purchase products with Michigan ingredients and will pay more to do so,” Sirrine said.

Dusci plans to continue to be a part of the growing industry.

“In 2013, we planted 3,400 plants, which is about five acres,” Dusci said. “We plan to expand in the spring of 2015 by planting an additional 5,300 plants.”

American Patriot Hops will soon be ready to send this season’s product to ThumbCoast Brewing Co.

“ThumbCoast Brewing is looking for traditional, aromatic hops,” Dusci said. “They will use the fresh cones to produce a harvest ale this year. Once we pick the cones, we ship them directly within 12 hours.”

Dusci said hops can be sold to brewers in three different ways — as fresh cones, in pellets, or dried.

“By the end of 2016, we plan on having our own processing center so we can dry and roast the hops ourselves. Currently we will have to send them to Traverse City to be dried and processed. We want to be able to produce the whole product ourselves, from plant to final product. Breweries align with processing centers. The Thumb area hops industry will be stunted until we get a processing center. Currently there is not one in this area.”