|By MIKE NORTON
EMPIRE, MI – Each spring, thousands of people come to this picturesque Lake Michigan village to celebrate the virtues of asparagus. The quirky Empire Asparagus Festival features asparagus beers, an asparagus cook-off and a literary competition where would-be poets write and recite their own “Odes to Asparagus.”
Now the little town (pop. 400 or so) is applying the same treatment to another little-regarded crop. The Empire Hops Festival, held this year on Oct. 1, commemorates Empire’s emergence as a leader in the production of hops – a commodity that’s increasingly in demand as America’s craft brewing industry continues to expand.
Known for its wide beaches, freshwater surfing scene and the headquarters of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Empire is also the nucleus of a burgeoning hops industry. Over the past decade, Michigan’s production of the intensely aromatic plant has exploded from a small cottage industry to more than 1,000 acres, making it the largest hops-producing state outside the Pacific Northwest, where the vast percentage of hops are still grown.
Cultivated on enormous trellises, the climbing “bines” of hop plants grow extremely high, and their papery cones are usually harvested in early fall. To thrive, the plants require cold winters, warm summers, and loose loamy soils.
In the last few seasons, the characteristic poles and wires of hop-farming operations have been springing up around northwestern Michigan. One of the first commercial hopyards, Empire Hops Farm, was established in 2008 on 54 acres. Since then, founder Dan Wiesen has expanded into several other ventures, including a 400-acre hopyard and processing center on a former golf course in Williamsburg, just east of Traverse City.
“We’re actually in the perfect place for growing hops,” says Paul Skinner, energetic spokesman for the local Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve got warm summers, plenty of water, and an amazing number of craft breweries.”
In fact, Skinner expects 14 of the 19 microbreweries in the Traverse City area to be on hand for the third annual Empire Hops Festival – many of them featuring beers specially made for the celebration. Since it takes place just a few days after the end of the 2016 harvest, he says, the festival is a great opportunity for aficionados to enjoy “wet-hopped” beers that employ fresh hops instead of the dried or pelletized plants used during the rest of the year.
“It gives you a much different flavor from using processed hops,” he says. “Besides, it’s just kind of cool to be standing on Front Street sipping a brew, knowing that the hops in it were harvested from a farm not two miles away.”
Still, the Hops Festival isn’t quite the three-day extravaganza of eccentricity that Empire’s Asparagus Festival is – it revolves largely around beer, food and music. Craft brew fanciers, it turns out, are surprisingly serious about what they drink and how it’s made, says Skinner. Visitors and exhibiting brewers all spend a lot of festival time asking and answering questions, tasting each other’s creations and sharing tips about ingredients.
“Even the food vendors get into the act,” he says. “They’re already calling the brewers to find out what kind of beers they’re bringing so they can marry the foods and brews together, just like you’d pick out the right dish to go with a particular wine.”
Fall is probably the loveliest season in this part of northern Michigan, characterized by long golden afternoons, cool nights, and breathtaking colors as the hardwood forests of the Traverse City put on their annual autumn display.TripAdvisor.com calls it one of America’s Top 10 fall foliage destinations.)
In addition, Traverse City Tourism – the area’s tourism marketing organization – is promoting what it calls a “Fab Fall” getaway special. Through Dec. 19, visitors can take advantage of special rates at participating resorts and hotels, plus discounts on shopping, dining, spa services, golf, entertainment and other activities.
For more information about the Empire Hops Festival, go to empirechamber.com/. To learn more about fall events, lodging, dining and other activities in Michigan’s Traverse City area go to www.traversecity.com/.