Truly local brews begin on this Southwest sustainable hop farm

Susan McCabe and her friends at Ribbon Farm Hops are embracing a very old practice.

In 2013, they set out to bring the centuries-old tradition of hops growing to an unlikely spot: urban Detroit. Specifically, a little back lot on the southwest side dubbed the “ribbon farms.”

The area traces back to when the early French settlers of the city divided land on the riverfront into three-mile long by 250 ft. wide strips to facilitate irrigation. With this nod to Detroit’s agricultural past, Susan and company set up shop to become Ribbon Farm Hops.

But they aren’t just any hops growers. Susan’s team is dedicated to producing a very high-quality, non-processed hop that preserves the lupulin of the hop cones. Lupulin is the yellow powder found in the base of each cone that really delivers the flavor and aroma of the hop. By hand-sorting and eliminating machine processing, Susan hopes to set herself apart as a specialty hops grower for a very specific kind of customer.

“We’re nurturing these hops using sustainable methods,” Susan says. “We’re a company that cares about its community and the environment and we’re trying to produce a quality product that will make great tasting beer.”

When I met Susan in her communal workspace, she immediately welcomed me into her world and I could see the passion on her face. Her eyes light up as we begin to talk about her endeavor, and we discuss the emerging hops market in Michigan.

It’s obvious that a shared workspace is ideal for her, based on the way she discusses her peers. Even among those who might naturally seem like competitors, Susan fosters a community mindset.

 

“We’re all kind of sharing and helping each other,” she says. “We’re all learning together.”

The work Susan does is definitely a labor of love, a quality she attributes to most people in the industry here. With a sly smile she tells me how lucky she is to have a husband with a steady income and benefits. Others she knows aren’t as lucky. Susan sites others who work malting barley. They get up to tend the malt at 5 a.m. before heading to their day jobs.

Being a hard worker is a quality Susan and Detroit have in common. Pennsylvanian by birth, Susan and her husband Jim came to Detroit in 1993 and found home, “I really wanted to do something in Detroit to give back,” she says.

With that goal in mind, Susan decided to quit her museum work in 2012 and dedicate herself to a new project of passion.

After a brief consideration of opening a music museum, she landed on growing hops and dove in with both feet. Having always been fascinated by the rich history of beer making – she and Jim have even taken courses in 19th Century brewing techniques    Susan also gives lectures to museums on how to use this history, with modern craft brewing, to bring in a younger crowd.

 

After some seminars and a successful run at the Michigan Women’s Foundation Entrepreneur You grant, Ribbon Farm Hops was a reality.

The team, which includes Susan’s husband Jim, daughter Betsy, and an assortment of talented friends, set up shop on a piece of land roughly the size of a city lot. Susan put her grants expertise to good work, seeking out support from MSU, Western Michigan University, and local urban farms. She cites MSU Extension as a real driving force behind the farm and the emerging hops industry.

Shortly after getting off the ground, Susan joined the Hop Growers of Michigan. She has her hands in every aspect of the farming from the actual dirt to helping  set food safety and processing standards for Michigan’s emerging agribusiness.

Thus far, the growing itself has been mostly a success. Ribbon Farm is dedicated to growing organically in a sustainable environment, and there have certainly been challenges with that. Michigan is a more challenging locale for hops than the Pacific Northwest (where most hops in the U.S. are currently grown). When weather has been wet or cold Michigan hops are especially susceptible to Downy Mildew, a kind of fungus that can take down an entire hop plant if left unchecked.

 

Susan and her team face an even more difficult task trying to fend off issues like this in a pesticide and chemical-free environment. Additionally, she is also planning some research into how much the questionable urban soil in the city may affect the quality of the hops.

Despite these challenges, Ribbon Farm Hops has already had a few signature brews made locally. Downey Brewing Company in Dearborn did a wet-hopped beer with Glacier and Mackinac strains. Motor City Brewing Works has done a few limited releases using the Mackinac hops.

Mackinac itself is a very interesting Michigan creation. Susan tells me that several farmers ordered Teamaker hops and noticed that the typically low-growing, low-bitterness hop was topping out at around 20 feet high, which was significantly larger than expected. After an analysis, it was determined that a hops anomaly had taken place and this plant didn’t fit any of the known hops varieties. Great Lakes Hops then dubbed it a proprietary hop and named it Mackinac.

 

Brewers have fallen in love with this variety, which has high alphas – meaning its taste is quite bitter – and a citrus quality. Dan Scarsella, the brewer at Motor City Brewing Works in Midtown, describes it as “herbal, almost tea-like with a fruity spice and bitterness.” The idea of a truly local beer is really exciting to both Dan and Susan.

For that to happen, Susan knows the farm must expand.

“Where we are right now I’ve seen as our experimental garden. It’s very small but I wanted that way to learn, not to get too overwhelmed by it,” she says.

Susan has had some real estate slip through her fingers, but she’s being very sensitive about where she will place another farm.

 

“They’re tall, it’s commercial agriculture, not a community garden. I want to make sure it’s a good fit,” she says.

Susan’s big hope is being included in the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project. Fitzgerald is an initiative taken on by the city to repurpose vacant land into community assets. Focused on a quarter-square mile area at McNichols and Livernois, the project is set to update landscaping, remove blight, add public art, and open a public park. Susan’s contacts with the project are very excited at the prospect of adding some commercial agriculture to the terrain of the project.

In the meantime, Ribbon Farm Hops,  has worked with Batch Brewing to put a hops trellis on the patio at the brewery. The Ribbon Farm team has also come out with a variety of hop-centric gifts, everything from “Hoppy Holidays” ornaments to a portable “Hop Sock” – a microwavable aromatherapy sock stuffed with hops.

“We’re a fun company,” Susan says with a laugh.

 

And while it may seem this woman is always on the go – lending hands to fellow farmers, fighting to allow urban livestock so sheep can trim the lawn and manage the weeds, or facilitating the annual Hops and Barley Conference in Detroit – she says she, Jim and friends can be found spending time enjoying the rotating taps at local bars.

“There’s such a variety now, just this explosion of amazing beers, just amazing. I think what’s happening is the re-establishment of local neighborhood bars that just have really good beer.”

Hopefully soon those beers will include more Detroit-grown hops.

As I said my goodbyes to this woman with the sparkling eyes and busy hands it strikes me that this is the kind of person who Gets. Things. Done. I have full confidence that with Susan McCabe at the helm, those truly local Detroit brews can’t be that far off.