Northern Michigan hops company blossoms into industry leader

Back in 2008, IT Specialist Brian Tennis had an idea that had nothing to do with computers. Tennis was working for the iconic Michigan furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, but was drawing inspiration from a man he calls his hero, Larry Mawby, a Northern Michigan agricultural pioneer — and a fine winemaker to boot.

Tennis wanted to find out if the fertile grounds of the Leelanau Peninsula would be conducive to growing hops.

“I figured if Larry was crazy enough to plant grapes here, I would try to follow in his footsteps and plant hops,” Tennis said.

Farming is often a multi-generational family way of life where knowledge, experience and hard-knocks lessons are passed on from generation to generation. That’s not the case here though.

“I’m a first generation farmer with no background in agriculture,” Tennis said. “Hops were really the first plant I ever grew on a commercial scale. When we planted the first commercial certified organic hop yard in Michigan it was more of an experiment to see if we could successfully grow hops on the Leelanau Peninsula.”

Tennis’ experiment was proving to be successful and he was faced with a decision.

“The business grew to the point where I had to decide on a career path,” he recounted. “I chose hops over computers.”

He then formed Hop Alliance in 2010 to process his own hops, as well as hops grown at other reputable farms across Northern Michigan. The company is based in Omena in Leelanau County, with offices in Wixom and Livonia — a footprint that has seen it evolve from humble beginnings to become one of the largest independent hop suppliers in the country.

It also has the distinction of being the oldest hop operation in Michigan, according to Tennis.

“We will celebrate our 14th anniversary harvest this year,” he said. “We started as a first-time farmer operation that was set up as a co-op to help encourage the growth of the Michigan hop growing industry and to help smaller farms process and market their hops.”

Today the full-service hop merchant grows, processes and markets Michigan-grown hops to over 4,000 accounts nationwide. The company’s impressive emergence as an industry leader doesn’t mean it has outgrown its roots.

“We are still focused on helping fellow Michigan hop farmers and consider it an honor to work with them,” he said.

The company also sells smaller one-pound hop packs to home brewers.

Hop Alliance has a smaller structural footprint than many of its competitors. Tennis views this as a competitive advantage.

“We can be nimble enough to rapidly adapt to market conditions. We lean heavily on just-in-time logistics. We also don’t have enormous overhead and we don’t build up years of stale inventory.”

Nobody’s success story is strictly a solo venture and Tennis is quick to give credit where credit is due.

“The Hop Alliance would not be where we are without my business partners from Streetcar Ventures, Michael Collins and Michael Chetcuti,” he said. “They are among the most talented and brilliant people I know. Plus, they are a hell of a lot of fun and great people.”

As an industry pioneer and leader, Hop Alliance has set a standard it attempts to live up to in every aspect of its operation.

“I truly believe we are unique,” he said. “You don’t see a lot of merchants carrying the selection we do and at the price point.”

Because there is no middleman, Hop Alliance is able to offer customers (or partners as Tennis prefers to call them) better prices.

“We work directly with the farmers,” he noted. “You also don’t see the customer service that we offer.”

Tennis wears the passion for what he does on his rolled-up sleeve. 

“I love what I do,” he enthused. “I believe this passion translates throughout our organization. Our focus on Michigan hops is also something we love to boast about. We helped start the modern hop industry here and still grow and process over 20 Michigan-grown hop varieties.”

Hops are the flowers, or cones, of a plant called Humulus lupulus, a member of the Cannabaceae family. They are a bittering, flavouring, aromatic, and stabilizing agent in beer. In other words, they provide beer flavor, aroma and preservation.

Hop Alliance prides itself on customer service and has assembled a team dedicated to this core principle. It employs a full-time hop yard manager and a logistics team that “excels at what they do,” Tennis said.

If you reach out to Hop Alliance you’re likely to reach the boss, founder and owner Tennis, not an automated recording with multiple prompts that, naturally, don’t provide the answers you’re seeking.

“Our customer service is industry leading,” he said. “We are small enough where I still directly reply to emails and phone calls and provide quick solutions. Yet we’re also large enough to have the capital to grow to the scale where we can provide real value to our customers. The fact that we have a dedicated full-time hop yard manager and a logistics team allows me to solely concentrate on procuring hops and brewer outreach.”

This division of responsibility, Tennis added, has allowed Hop Alliance to expand, but has more importantly, allowed “us to be laser-focused on quality.”

Tennis has a message for beer enthusiasts: “Please keep supporting your local breweries, especially the ones that have a Michigan hop focus. They need you more now than ever.”

Find more Michigan brewery news and information at www.MiBrewTrail.com.