If you’ve ever had a beer (please tell me you’ve had a beer??), you probably need tip your cap to Yakima, Washington. Yakima isn’t thought of as a beer hub like Portland, Denver, or San Diego are, but it’s arguably even more important: the Yakima Valley produces more than 75% of the hops grown in this country. So if you’ve had an IPA lately (or a pilsner...or a stout...or any of the many, many beer styles that utilize hops!), you can thank the Yakima Valley.
While I spend a lot of time thinking about breweries (and drinking in them), I came to realize that I rarely think deeply about beer ingredients. So I decided to take a trip to the Yakima Valley during hop picking season to visit hop farms and production facilities, and attend a beer festival that specializes in fresh hop beers.
I took a crash course in hops -- and now I can fill you in on one of the most critical ingredients used to make beer.
I’m an indoor kid. I like watching sports on my couch and eating cereal. But standing in the middle of Hopsteiner’s Yakima Valley hop farm in Mabton, Washington, surrounded by expansive bines (that isn’t a typo -- hop vines are, in fact, called bines!) pretty much took my breath away.
Hopsteiner does everything from breeding to growing hops; they process them and distribute them around the world. I was there during hop harvest season to watch farmers cut down big ol’ bines and throw them into a picking machine that separates plant material from the bine. Later, I’d walk through a factory as the hops were finally and forever separated from the bine and other plant material. I took one of the sickest Boomerangs of my life in that factory:
But let’s take a step back from the farm for a moment to answer an important question:
What the hell is a hop?
The simple answer is that it’s the flower of a plant. (Are we...are we done here? ….No? I’ll continue.) But a hop isn’t just any flower of any plant (in this case, one called Humulus lupulus) -- it’s one that can totally shape a beer’s taste and aroma. And the Yakima Valley helps hop farmers get the most out of the flower.
Tim Kostelecky, a Hops and Brewing Technical Specialist from John I. Haas, North America’s largest hop producer, explained how Yakima’s climate is perfect for growing hops. “It’s dry here,” he said. “[The hops] resist mildews and molds that haunted them when they used to grow back East. And hops need a long [duration of] daylight to bloom.” Luckily for the hops, Pacific Northwest days are especially long in the summertime.
But hops don’t just appear in a field ready to be harvested -- tons of hard-working scientists at companies like Hopsteiner and Haas work to breed them in a lab so that brewers trying to make the next Heady Topper or Julius have new and exciting ingredients to work with. The development process for a new hop can take eight to twelve years!
One scientist at Hopsteiner explained to me that they go through 70,000 seedlings to select just 700; within the next five years, they’ll plant eight different hop varieties, all of which not only have to smell and look good, but have to be disease resistant, too. They’ll finally brew with these eight hops to see how they work in beer. The scientist likened it to sending a kid off to college with fingers crossed.
I also got to visit Haas’ offices in Yakima, where the company showed me around its Innovations Brewery. This is no brewery that just anyone can visit, though -- it’s for brewers only. “We wanted to be more than just hop suppliers -- we wanted to be brewers ourselves,” said Tim Kostelecky. “Because it’s how hops are expressed in beer that showcases their value. Before, we could give brewers hops and tell them, ‘We developed these hops and think they’re cool. Can you try [brewing with them] and give us your feedback?’” Nowadays, Haas simply brews the beer, and brewers in the market for new hops can drink it and decide for themselves.
It was in this very Innovations Brewery that I tried beer made with experimental hop varieties that were so new (as in 8-12 years old!), they didn’t even have names. One varietal beer, for example, was called HBC 438. I don’t know what the hop will end up being called, but I do know it was damn good: with loads of grapefruit and tropical fruit notes, I could see this type of hop becoming very popular.
That one experimental HBC hop is just the tip of the hop iceberg (hopberg?) -- Haas’ website lists 126 different hop varieties! Each one imparts different aromas and flavors to the beer. Virgil McDonald, Head Brewmaster at the Innovations Brewery, explains that hop varieties aren’t all that different from people: “There’s a breeding process,” he says. “When you pollinate a female plant with male pollen, all the seeds are your children. They have the same genetic makeup. But they’re all morphologically and behaviorally their own entity. If you have 100 seeds from a plant, you have 100 varietals.”
He’s not kidding: one of the newer hops brewers are using more and more these days, Lemon Drop (which exudes lemon flavors and aromas), is the child of the Cascade hop. And the now popular variety Mosaic (with its tropical fruit flavors) is the daughter of a Simcoe and Nugget hop.
But if you think new hops are the most important ingredient for making new, unique beers, that’s not quite the whole picture. That is, at least, according to a Hopsteiner biologist I spoke to nicknamed...wait for it...Dr. Disease. (Heavy metal band name, anyone?)
“We like [new hop varieties] for better yield, land use efficiency, and being disease-resistant so we don’t have to use chemicals as much,” explained Dr. Disease. “All those things are good, and there’s a huge interest in flavor innovation. But brewers have other tools -- the yeast and the barley -- in addition to the hop. It’s not always about the newest thing.” According to Dr. Disease, brewers aren’t necessarily thinking that their next beer should be based on the newest hop out there. “That’s like saying the type of beef I choose will determine the restaurant,” he explains.
credits:"[colleen / Flickr](https://www.flickr.com/photos/noisyspoon/2841649108)"
After all this talking about hops, I was in serious want of a beer. And because I visited Yakima during hop harvest season, breweries from all over the country were coming into town to brew beer with hops just pulled from the bine for the annual Fresh Hop Ale Festival. Typically, breweries most often use hops in pellet form: they hops have been processed, dried, heated in a kiln, and eventually pelletized. And there’s nothing wrong with that! You still get plenty of hop flavor, and it keeps the hops stable for a longer period of time so they don’t go rotten.
But fresh hops? These are different beasts altogether. Never dried or heated, they tend to be more grassy than your average hop. To borrow a quote from a Bon Appétit story by the fantastic beer writer Joshua M. Bernstein, it’s the difference between “using fresh herbs and dry herbs.” (Fun fact: Bernstein was also on this trip, and is very enthusiastic about bowling.) The Fresh Hop Ale Fest offered a sea of fresh-as-hell beers from which I wanted to never stop drinking.
I can say this without a hint of exaggeration: if you’ve never had a fresh hop IPA, you haven’t tasted “the real deal.” The fresh hops impart these beers with intense flavors, in the best possible use of that word. Many of the beers poured at the fest were fresh hop versions of the given brewery’s standard IPA. Jackson, Wyoming’s Melvin Brewing, for instance, fresh hoppified their already solid Melvin IPA. Drinking that brew, I could sense waves and waves of pineapple washing over me like... like a pineapple spa (is that a thing? That’s not a thing).
I also sipped on Crikey IPA from Seattle, Washington’s Reuben’s Brews. I was so busy enjoying the beer that the only notes I wrote were, “tastes clean and fresh in a unique way,” and, “I just want to keep smelling the beer.” Another Seattle brewery, Holy Mountain Brewing, had a huge line. When I finally got to try their dank and delicious Wetwired (made in collaboration with Cloudburst Brewing), I understood why.
I left Yakima the next morning at an ungodly hour to catch a flight out of the hop utopia (hoptopia?), thinking about what I’d learned about my new phenomenal flower friend. I thought about how it takes hundreds of people in science labs and on farms to breed, grow, and harvest them; about the patience and time it takes to develop a new hop variety; and about how beer made with fresh hops takes a delicious style to another level.
The next time you drink a beer brewed with hops, I hope you think about all of that too.