Head of the Class: Craft beer puts spotlight on Washington hops

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In 2006, two 200-pound hop bales in a warehouse in Yakima combusted, sending other bales flying and sparking a swiftly spreading blaze. The fire burned for six days and consumed 2.7 million pounds of hops, about 4 percent of the United States crop that year, devastating the hop supply and reducing the warehouse to twisted metal.

The fire precipitated what some have called the “Hop Crisis.” Yakima Valley produces nearly 80 percent of the nation’s hops and about a quarter of the world’s supply. But the fire also help author a fundamental shift in the hop business and launched Washington farmers into research on new specialty hops demanded by craft brewers, not unlike the research into grape varities that has helped Washington’s wine industry blossom.

The two types of hops involved in this shift are classified by their plant resins, chemicals present in the hop: alpha and beta acids. The amount of alpha acids in a hop plant determines its bitterness, while its beta acids give it aroma. The relative concentrations of these and other plant chemicals help to make up the flavor “fingerprint” of each hop variety. Hops are grown for this flavor profile and are added to beer as it boils prior to fermentation.

Before the 2006 fire, brewers primarily tended to use high-alpha hops. But because the fire disproportionately hit this type, some brewers began experimenting with the remaining high-aroma hops, a switch that put Washington farmers at the forefront of a transformation to specialty hops that has sparked explosive demand for our state’s unique hop varieties.

Hop cones, which look like a cross between a small pinecone and a flower, are sticky and pungent because of the plant resins and other essential oils. The flammable oils of a hop cone are key parts of its flavor chemistry, imparting taste and aromatic notes to beer. These same oils that make Washington’s $150 million hop crop smolder are those sought after by growers and brewers.

Walking through a cold Yakima warehouse mere yards from where the 2006 fire occurred, Hopunion President and CEO Don Bryant points out bales of a variety of hop called Citra. The bales can be “frozen solid on the outside,” says Bryant, and yet, “on the inside, it’s on fire.” He tells of cutting through frozen bales with a chainsaw last year after someone smelled smoke. The bales, smoking on the inside, exploded.

Citra is a high-alpha, high-oil hop used both for bittering and aroma that has gained popularity since its release in 2008 and has become one of a handful of poster children for the hop market’s evolution. Traditionally, European-influenced beers have used bittering hops from high-alpha crops. The big “macrobreweries” such as ABInBev (née Anheuser-Busch) have followed this practice. Bryant explains that, 10 years ago, three hops comprised 95 percent of the world market. Now, as he opens the doors to a warehouse resembling a hop-filled Home Depot, he points out that Hopunion handles 139 hop varieties.

Washington’s love affair with hops is not new. The state has been a global hop purveyor since the late 19th century. The first hops in Washington were planted in 1865 in the Puyallup Valley and, by 2012, Washington produced about 78 percent of the United States’ hop crop by acreage. It is now concentrated in the climatically optimal Yakima Valley.

In the past five years, Yakima Valley varieties such as Chinook and Centennial (two among the increasingly popular highly aromatic but still high-alpha “C hops,” like Citra) experienced a production increase of more than 100 percent.

Where formerly the process of selecting hops was a matter of taste and expertise, recent efforts to quantify the plants’ desirable characteristics, coupled with demand for “hot hops” known to consumers by name, have spurred unprecedented breeding and research efforts. Flavor profiles of many major hop breeds are well known, and many hop operations employ top-grade laboratory gear and techniques like gas chromatography to break down each hop to its basic chemical characteristics.

For the Yakima Valley, these efforts have benefited smaller cooperatives focused on specialty hop production. Hopunion, a grower-owned cooperative of 11,000 acres, has expanded in parallel with the craft industry, from a niche market share worth $1.7 million 10 years ago to an expected $100 million annually in the next few years. “Eighty percent of our growth is with custom-bred hops,” Bryant says.

The shift from a focus on bittering hops to aroma is the result of two divergent processes. The 2006 warehouse fire merely cast light on an industry evolution already taking place. What Bryant describes as an “implosion in macrobeers” has led the Anheuser-Busches and MillerCoorses of the beer industry to cut ingredient costs in response to the recession. Simultaneously, the quality-driven growth of the craft industry, from 48 American breweries in 1980 to more than 2,300 today, has increased demand for hops.

These changes don’t necessarily imply a growth or contraction of the hop market, but they do lead to a dramatic shift in its makeup. Whereas the United States hop crop has typically trended 60 to 70 percent high alpha, and 30 to 40 percent aroma, in 2011 the crop split was 50-50, says Ann George, president of the Washington Hop Commission.

The Hop Commission’s 2012 report on relative acreage shows alpha and aroma varieties holding at just over 15 thousand acres each. Unites States alpha acreage has shrunk 14.65 percent in the past five years, while aroma acreage has increased 30.51 percent. This trend is almost uniquely American; traditional European beers use bittering hops grown primarily in Germany.

This trend means that Yakima is “the world’s most focused point of sourcing,” says Bryant, who fields interest from Brazilian beer barons and New Zealanders looking to expand their palates. While New Zealand is a solid hop producer in its own right, Bryant points out that “everyone is enamored of U.S. hops.” Demand is so high, it has led to the creation of waiting lists for some varieties.


Brewers may want the latest hops to hit the market, but the processes governing hop breeding and economics operate on scales of several years. Like many other agricultural products, hops are a contract crop. This means that buyers commit to their purchase ahead of time, and growers guarantee a certain variety and amount of product. George explains that most hop contracts are on three- to five-year terms, a procedure lends certainty to both the supply and the market, she says.

“It takes 20 years to breed a hop,” says George. Breeders may experiment with 30 to 50 thousand crosses in a year. It then takes three years for seeds to be planted in test plots, ultimately resulting in several dozen successful strains. Hops flower annually, and only the female plants are useful for brewing; throw in disease, weather anomalies, gene expression and stress testing, and the fastest a variety can get out the door is in about eight years. George says that out of the quarter million seeds that might be planted at the outset of a breeding process, only 20 may remain by year three.

This process is the key to the great dichotomy of Washington hops: Consumers want on a rapid scale what takes an industry decades to produce. The need for novelty seemingly outpaces the need for invention.

Or does it? “The shift in acreage is not necessarily because of new varieties,” says George, “but because of demand for different things.” Centennial, a sharply floral hop gaining popularity in the past decade, is at least 15 years old; Cascade, the pleasantly piney backbone of many Northwest pale ales, is a 40-year-old hop.

One might think of these hops as being repurposed and rebranded, just as barrel-aged Pabst Blue Ribbon has become popular in China. Simcoe, Citra and Mosaic, star hops of the past three years, all failed as high-alpha hops, explains Bryant. “But brewers liked them,” he says.

Kevin Watson, a brewer for Elysian Brewing in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, agrees. “If a new hop is getting some buzz,” he says, “we’ll grab it and try to do something interesting, … get that feel for what it does.” Hops have different strengths in beer, with typically two to eight varieties included in each of Elysian’s beers.

But Elysian has also been known to brew single-hop beers, which have been gaining popularity in recent years. “Just four to five years ago, 90 percent of beer consumers had never seen a hop,” says Bryant. But he attributes the recent increase in consumer knowledge to such single-hop beers as Elysian makes. Watson says single-hop varieties don’t always produce the most interesting beers, but that Elysian makes them “mostly for educational purposes.”

Bryant believes the relationship between hop growers, brewers and consumers is mirroring the evolution of the wine industry several decades ago. People know grapes, he says; that same relationship with hops and farmers has never existed, but now it’s on the rise. Bryant is a king of beverage branding, having worked with Gallo Wineries and as a vice president of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, where he adapted the Canadian product for the United States and tripled the size of the company in three years.

Part of building the relationship between growers, brewers and consumers has been an effort to change the character of breeding programs to do what Tom Nielsen of California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing calls “pinpoint” breeding. A collaborator with Hopunion, Sierra Nevada is one of a handful of breweries that test different hops far down the breeding pipeline. For Nielsen, pinpoint breeding means increased flavor analysis; Hopunion is similarly trying to optimize water and soil usage.

Experimentation and breeding are not only about quantifying flavor, but also about turning flavor analysis on its head. For a recent Sierra Nevada beer, the brewers started with a conceptual framework for their desired flavor, then analyzed about 120 experimental hops before they found one that fit their algorithm.

The experimentalists may finally be reconciling the opposing influences of breeding and consumer taste. If this scenario plays out, Washington state is uniquely positioned to supply and to influence brewing worldwide, given its dominance in hop production and trading.

Waiting in the Wings: Specialty Yeasts and Grains
While hops steal the spotlight as the specialty ingredient of the moment, waiting in the wings are yeast and grain. Elysian Brewing’s Kevin Watson explains that, while yeast isn’t “the next hop,” it is diversifying like hop breeds. Microbreweries like Allagash Brewing in Maine are working with wild yeast strains for open fermentation; sour ales are also gaining popularity. And sometimes yeast strains take on a local character, even if they lack the necessary tie to geography that Northwest-grown hops possess. Watson says that many Washington brewers pass yeast strains around “like a friendship bread.”

Steve Jones works in wheat breeding at Washington State University. “Hops has always been there,” says Jones, director of WSU’s Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon. “The novel thing is wheat and barley flavors.” Just as hops that fail the high-alpha test may be valued for their aromatic qualities, many wheat varieties are following a similar arc and finding marketability in unforeseen ways.

Jones emphasizes that much of his work is about “noticing things that might have always been there,” and explains that his lab can achieve flavor variety by growing grains in different climates. He also points out that the proportion of grain in a beer far dwarfs that of hops.

Sierra Nevada’s Tom Nielsen is similarly excited about the prospects for specialty grain. He is in the midst of starting what he calls the “largest barley flavor collaboration project in history” with Patrick Hayes, a barley-breeding expert at Oregon State University. The project will attempt to quantify flavor and genetic profiles from a pool of 2,500 barley varieties that had been growing at the school for disease-resistance testing.

Combined with Nielsen and Haines’ research, Jones’ work on Skagit Valley wheat agriculture could position Washington as a major player in the next big beer flavoring movement.