Drink + Eat: The business up food and drink Up North.

Craft beers, their makers and their fans are gathering in Traverse City in a couple of weeks at the inaugural Winter Microbrew & Music Festival (see details below) so I decided to see what's up with that most critical part of beer-making: hops. There's been quite a buzz in this region about growing them so I wondered how the northern Michigan hops industry is coming along.

In the big picture, Michigan will never compete with Washington (or Oregon or Idaho, for that matter) when it comes to volume or price. The economies of scale just don't compare.

Washington growers produced 79 percent of the U.S. hop crop in 2009, according to the Hop Growers of America, and 8,000 more acres were recently planted, says Dr. Rob Sirrine, who directs MSU's Leelanau County Extension office.

"They have a tremendous capacity to ramp up and lower costs," says Sirrine.

By comparison, Michigan has approximately 40 acres in the ground statewide (10 of those on Old Mission).

But one way Michigan growers can potentially compete, at least on a regional production level, is by focusing on quality and best management practices, says Sirrine.

"It's just like with the wine industry … if one local winery produces a wine that is subpar, it's bad for all the local wineries."

That's why the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station south of Suttons Bay is conducting hop trials – finding out what grows well in northern Michigan's micro-climate already so suitable for several varieties of wine grapes.

The trials started last year and the station currently has six hop varieties in the ground. It recently submitted a Project GREEN grant (greeen.msu.edu), which would allow them to plant six more.

"The goal of these trials is to connect brewers and growers for a local source of hops," explains Sirrine.

And there's definitely interest. Breweries that have purchased hops from the Old Mission hop growers include Right Brain, Short's, Jolly Pumpkin and New Holland.

Leelanau County also is participating in a USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative that is studying organic hop production systems. Participating in the study are Leelanau growers Brian Tennis of New Mission Organics and John Lewis.

So are more hop growers needed? Getting into the hop business is something that has generated a lot of interest, especially after hop prices shot up a couple of years ago due to a shortage and small breweries in particular were looking for other sources.

"If we are just supplying brewers in the state of Michigan, we need 300 acres," says Sirrine. "If we're supplying the entire Great Lakes region, we need 3,000 acres."

It's going to be an issue of quality and whether growers can make money, adds Sirrine. "At this point in Michigan, the industry is in need of a statewide growers group or consortium to get all the growers on the same page."

Speaking of hops, nearly 40 craft brews will be the star at the Winter Microbrew & Music Fest on Feb. 12 on the grounds of the Grand Traverse Resort. Festival creator Sam Porter of Porterhouse Productions says the fun will take place in two huge outdoor heated tents connected by a snow fortress. With heaters and bonfires, Porter jokes that it will be warmer than the summer version (held on a very wet and chilly day last August).

He's planning for 3,000 people to attend the Friday evening event that kicks off the Cherry Capital Winter Wonderfest weekend. Traverse City has a strong dedication to supporting local food and beverages, Porter says, and events that promote the sustainability and craft beer movements. He recounts an image of a local baker to illustrate the special connection between craft food and beverage artisans: "I can't tell you how great it felt to see someone like Gerard Grabowski, owner of Pleasanton Bakery in Traverse City, running through last summer's Microbrew and Music Festival with pizzas high above his head smiling and sharing a great time, his art … and [getting] needed business."

Visit porterhouseproductions.com for event details.