YAKIMA – Whether your brew of choice is Budweiser or Bale Breaker, there are few places on Earth where you can sip a cold pint knowing the flavors came from a farm just down the road.
That’s a point of pride for nearly everyone connected to the Yakima Valley’s hops industry, from farmers to regulars at Yakima Sports Center – a downtown bar with a selection of two dozen craft beer taps.
Hops farmers are still farmers, and face the same challenges as other growers: labor shortages, rising costs, a particularly pesky mite, high barriers to entry that keep new players from entering the market.
But the rise of craft beer has propelled the industry, and Yakima along with it, to greater recognition around the world. Washington hop acreage has grown 42 percent over the past five years, with 38,438 acres harvested in 2017, according to Hop Growers of America.
That increase has paralleled an explosion in the craft beer industry and the dominance of India pale ales, the style best known for showcasing hop flavors.
It’s a Northwest, and especially a Washington crop: The Evergreen State made up 74 percent of U.S. hop production in 2017. Add Oregon and Idaho, and the Pacific Northwest accounted for 98 percent.
Worldwide, 41 percent of the hops produced in 2017 were American. The only other country that comes close is Germany, at 36 percent.
Why Yakima? Like many crops, hops are fussy about where they grow best.
Long daylight hours in the summer are important for the plant to bloom, producing the green cones that go into beer. That requirement has concentrated the plant almost entirely within a narrow latitude band in the northern hemisphere, from Washington to Germany and the Czech Republic.
But they also need a dry climate: Too much moisture and the plant will mold, ruining the flavor of the hops. That rules out much of the Pacific Northwest.
“We have a very unique kind of climate and region,” said Patrick Smith, a fourth-generation hop farmer who runs Loftus Ranches with his father, Mike. Some people in the industry say Yakima has the right terroir, a term borrowed from wine grape growers to describe the impact of a region’s climate and soil on the grape flavor.
The youngest generation of the Smith family shows the effect hops have had on Yakima over the past decade.
Patrick Smith is the oldest of three siblings, and said all three were eager to get out of central Washington after high school.
“It was like, ‘Bye, I’m going to the big city, see you at Thanksgiving, Yakima,’ ” Smith said.
His sister, Meghann, and brother, Kevin, followed him out to the University of Washington. But as the cost of living rose in larger cities and craft beer, especially India pale ales, became cool, the siblings started realizing they had grown up somewhere special.
Meghann Quinn, the middle sibling, is now the business manager at Bale Breaker Brewing Co., the only U.S. commercial brewery located on a commercial hops farm. More specifically, they’re on Field 41 of Loftus Ranches, hence the name of their flagship Field 41 Pale Ale.
They opened in 2013 with a vision of supplying quality craft beer to Eastern Washington, Quinn said. At the time, Yakima had only one small craft brewery and people thought they’d have no luck selling their product outside of Seattle.
“People just thought we were crazy,” she said. “This was a yellow beer town.”
Every Bale Breaker flagship brew is hoppy: several IPAs and a pale ale that would pass as an IPA at most breweries. (There’s no fine line distinguishing the two, though a pale ale tends to be slightly less alcoholic and hoppy.)
“We wanted to teach people that hoppy doesn’t have to mean bitter,” Quinn said. Topcutter, their main IPA, is milder than you might expect, with lots of hops giving it a bit of sweet citrus flavor.
Smith, 34, took over the 1,800-acre farm. It’s one of about 40 operations in Washington that collectively grow three-quarters of American hops and provide the backbone for the state’s $1.8 billion craft beer industry.
Harvest on the crop won’t begin until late August. But spring is the most labor-intensive time of year for growers.
Workers first tie the ropes to the overhead trellis, moving down the rows quickly while tying cow hitches with one hand. Then the hop vines are “trained” – individually curved up a rope so they can grow skyward, moving clockwise as they follow the sun.
“It’s truly a very skilled labor by farmworkers,” said Doug Walsh, a hops researcher and entomologist at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center.
Ideally, the vines will reach the top of the trellis between the summer solstice and the Fourth of July. That ensures they’re ready to harvest around September.
“Getting this right, the timing, might be the single most important thing we do,” Smith said.
The result can be breathtaking. The overgrown vines of Field 15 look like a jungle near dusk, with the ryegrass cover crop sticking to shoes between planted rows.
Tendrils of hops rise 8 or 9 feet in the air, snaking up twisted coconut fiber ropes toward the trellis 18 feet above the earth.
It’s dry, hot like summer though it’s only May. The hops are drip-irrigated and the sun has been beating down all day, but the earth gives off the sandy sweet aroma of freshly rained-on soil.
Wooden poles give a semblance of plan, lining the rows and separating plants into clusters of eight. Vines like to grow thick, running together, adding curve to the grid.
This field of Simcoe hops has grown too quickly and will likely need to be re-trained. But as the sun sets, it’s the perfect place to appreciate the beauty of one of Yakima’s most charismatic crops.
To understand the impact craft beer has had on hops, you have to understand how beer is made.
There are thousands of variations and small details that distinguish styles from each other, but the basic process remains the same. Take grain, usually barley, and steep in hot water to release the sugars. Boil the resulting liquid, called wort, adding hops and other spices for flavor. Ferment with yeast, transforming the sugars into carbon dioxide, then bottle the resulting beer.
Hops traditionally have been added to beer as a bittering agent, to balance out the sweet flavors from the malt. That’s the role they play in American-style lagers and American-style pilsners: the terms for brews like Coors and Miller.
The varieties that do that work best are called “bittering” hops and include Columbus, Zeus and Tomahawk, collectively known as CZT hops.
Hops used in hop-forward beers are called “aroma” hops and include Cascade, a staple in Pacific Northwest beers, and newer varieties like Citra, Mosaic and Galaxy. Some varieties, like Simcoe, are dual-purpose, meaning they both bitter and add flavor.
Since 2012, the makeup of hops fields has shifted substantially, with aroma varieties on the rise. Cascade remains the most popular hop by acreage, while Zeus has fallen from second place, with 3,277 acres, to fifth, with 2,214. Columbus and Tomahawk have seen similar declines, moving from fourth place to 10th.
Taking their places: Citra, the third most popular hop in 2017, which is known for adding a juicy, citrus profile that’s popular in IPAs right now. Simcoe, a dual-purpose hop found in many local beers, has moved from ninth place to fourth, with 3,753 acres planted in 2017. Mosaic, another aroma hop, cracked the top 10 list in 2015 and now has 1,877 acres planted.
“Citra is probably the fastest-growing hop variety that we had ever seen,” said Ann George, executive director of Hop Growers of America.
Left alone, a hop plant can produce for about eight years, said Jaki Brophy, communications manager for Hop Growers of America. But it’s rare to find a field in Yakima where a single variety is planted for so long. Growers are shifting fields and planting new varieties in response to brewer demand.
“The average life of a hop field in the Yakima Valley has been cut in half,” Smith said.
Craft beer is a small share of U.S. consumption – roughly 13 percent by volume in 2017, according to the Brewers Association. But on average, those brewers use far more hops per barrel than their macro counterparts, especially when making IPAs and pale ales.
The rapid growth of craft breweries made it difficult for some brewers to get the hop varieties they wanted several years ago, especially after a 2015 drought hit the Yakima crop.
George said speaking of an overall hops shortage or oversupply is usually too simplistic, since hops are grown under contract. Farmers sell their product to processors and distributors: roughly a half dozen companies that dominate the Yakima market and sell their wares to brewers, typically as dry pellets or extracts.
Some breweries also contract directly with farmers for hops, George said. They may be larger beer producers that have the scale, or they may be craft operations that have a very specific flavor profile they want and have developed a relationship with a farmer.
Most contracts are for five years, because setting up a field for a specific variety is labor-intensive. Hops have to be propagated by cutting from the plant’s rhizome, the root mass, which then grows as a start until it’s transplanted to the field. Farmers then set up the wooden poles and trellis, and run irrigation lines.
It’s a lot of up-front cost that farmers want to amortize over several seasons, George said.
“When a brewer walks in your door and says, ‘I want this,’ you have about a two-year time lag before you can give them 100 percent of this,” she said.
That problem is illustrated – somewhat – in the Wi-Fi password at Perry Street Brewing, the Perry District microbrewer known for making hop-forward beers.
As they prepared to open in 2013, owner and brewer Ben Lukes wanted to buy Simcoe hops, which were just beginning their rise in popularity. Washington acreage would jump 60 percent in 2015.
Lukes found the distributor representative he worked with was unable to get him any. He’s since begun working with another rep, and concedes the issue might have been a combination of availability and the unhelpfulness of the first rep. But the story stuck, and the taproom’s password is “nosimcoe.”
“At the time hops were really short and that was proprietary,” he said. Now, Simcoe is in many brews at Perry Street.
George said one function of the growers association is to help brewers better understand how hops are grown and the production realities for farmers. The situation is more stable now, she said, with varieties that had been difficult to get becoming readily available.
“For a few years we were playing catch-up because the brewery industry was growing at a more rapid rate,” George said.
If craft beer were to fade away, that would also spell disaster for hop growers, but no one in Yakima seemed concerned about that possibility.
Though much has been made of people growing tired of hoppy beer, IPAs still dominate the craft sales market, and craft beer consumption grew last year even as overall U.S. beer consumption fell slightly.
“Craft is certainly not a fad. It’s definitely got some staying power,” said Pete Mahony, vice president of supply chain operations for John I. Haas, one of the largest hops distributors in the world. The company processed 104 million pounds of Northwest hops last year.
Smith left Yakima in 2000 after high school, convinced he would never come back. He and his two younger siblings all wanted to get off the farm and into a bigger city.
“Yakima was not a super-exciting place to be and the hops industry wasn’t a super-exciting place to be,” Smith said. But as craft beer got popular and places like Seattle became more expensive, Smith found himself reconsidering. He moved back to take over the farm, while his younger siblings run Bale Breaker Brewing. It is, as far as they know, the only brewery in the U.S. operating on a commercial hop farm.
Smith said he’s seen Yakima change as the industry has grown. It’s becoming a destination for beer tourism, having finally developed enough craft breweries to sustain interest. At hop harvest time, brewers from around the world converge on central Washington for hop selection.
“In the beer geek world, it’d be like going to the Oscars red carpet,” he said.
Lead photo credit: The sunsets over field 15 as hops plants grow onto coconut fiber ropes toward the trellis 18 feet tall at Loftus Ranches, a fourth-generation hop farm in the Yakima Valley on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)