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This Michigan Hop Farm Is Taking Chicago's Craft Beer To The Next Level

By Ben Kramer in Food on Jan 4, 2016 3:00PM

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Photo provided by Nunzino Pizza.

If you read the label on Revolution's “Local Hero”, you will see the name “Hop Head Farms” in small print beneath the pitchfork-wielding hop man. It may seem strange to advertise a hop farm on a label, but Hop Head Farms is different.

Unlike most American hop farms, HHF grows and pellets their own crop in Michigan, not in the Pacific Northwest. They also import hops from Europe, and even though the farm is headquartered in Hickory Corners, Michigan, HHF has ties to Chicago.

Initially, they were told they couldn't do it, with people going so far as to laugh at them when they attended their first Hop Growers Conference. But the idea that founders Nunzino Pizza, Jeff and Bonnie Steinman (husband and wife) dreamt up in 2008, and put to reality in 2012, has flourished since. (But that's the quick version of their story. A more detailed version can be found here.)

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Photo provided by Nunzino Pizza.

Now, you may be saying, “Okay, what's their connection to Chicago? And what are hops?” Simply put, hops are flowers that come from the hop plant Humulus Lupulus. They provide beer with flavors that can range from earthy to citrus, aromas from floral to piney, and bitterness. As for HHF and Chicago, Nunzino Pizza is not only a lifelong Chicagoan, but also a primary investor in Revolution Brewing. Of their 350 clients, HHF can count places such as Revolution, Goose Island, Half Acre, Pipeworks, Begyle, and DryHop as breweries on their list.

How were they able to woo these well known, respected establishments?

“Nunzino would bring us pellets,” remembers Matt Gallagher, co-founder of Half Acre Brewing Co. “And he'd bring us whole hop leafs as well.”

“We started going to people (and asked), 'Are you intrigued by this,'” says Pizza. “Samples started going out, orders started to go in.” The product spoke for itself, sold itself, and gave Chicago brewers something new to play with. It wasn't long until breweries like Goose Island and Half Acre realized they could utilize HHF hops for wet-hop ales, a style typically done between August and October, and most common in the west coast, due to easier and closer access to hop farms.

Wet-hop ales are beers brewed with freshly picked hops that are taken straight from the fields and into the brewhouse. They are fresh, not dried, and their oils, aromas and flavor are at their peak. Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible, describes the style in his book as, “simple and lean, but they are fully evolved beers...the flavors they give are expressive and vivid, less cookie dough, more freshly baked cookies.” He goes on to describe the hops as being more delicate in flavor and aroma, unlike dried pellets, where the flavors become more concentrated and intense.

For the past two years, Goose Island has teamed with HHF for their wet “Sticky Feathers IPA” while Half Acre started using HHF Chinook for their “Sticky Fat American Dark Ale” in 2014. Half Acre has been doing Sticky Fat for five years. They previously used hops from the West Coast, which would take days to arrive, and as Gallagher puts it, came in, “varying states of decay.” When they switched to HHF, he described the difference as being, “Night and day,” with the beer having a, “much more intense and pronounced wet hop flavor than when we had used hops from Washington, and California.”

The ability to brew wet hop ales may be a plus for Chicago breweries, but an even greater benefit has been allowing them easy access to hops when they're in a pinch. “It's great for me,” says Keith Gabbett, Senior Brewer and Hop Selector at Goose Island. “They [have] helped us out with a few hops we've had a hard time getting...they've pulled us out of a few jams.”

One such jam happened last spring, when Gabbett was running trials on a session sour (which should be out next year) and his hop shipment got tied up. He called HHF, explained the situation, and asked if they could deliver him some Hallertau Blanc and Huell Melon that day. Within 12 hours he got them.

“With our customer service,” says Pizza. “One of the things we really wanted to be was a part of the community. Like, when your friend calls, how long do you wait to call them back? They're reaching out to you-let's get back in touch and see what's happening.”

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Photo provided by Nunzino Pizza.

It's a philosophy that's working, and continues to earn them friends here in Chicago, and across the country. Since they've started growing, they've quietly made great contributions to Chicago craft beer, and even if it may go under the radar, they make quite the impact. Whether in a Centennial Ninja from 2013, a Euchred this October, or occasionally a batch of Daisy Cutter, they help shape some of Chicago's finest beers. And so long as they keep growing (they'll own 500 acres by 2018), their contributions will most likely become greater and greater.