Washington’s Hop Growers Keep Climbing

The craft brewing explosion has given family farms in the Yakima Valley a measure of stability.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Charles Carpenter, a farmer’s son from New York state, moved to the Yakima Valley in 1868. He started his own farm near Ahtanum, about nine miles southwest of present-day Yakima, and planted his first hop fields. He soon realized the place was particularly well suited to growing hops, which were primarily used as a stabilizing agent in beer making. The region averages more than 200 days of sunshine per year and has fertile soil deposited by a meandering river that provides plenty of water for irrigation.

It’s unlikely Carpenter imagined that, a century and a half later, the Yakima Valley would be one of the most productive hop-growing areas on Earth. But it is. In 2015 and 2016, the valley produced more hops than any other agricultural region in the world, edging out Germany, which had held the title for ages but had two difficult years because of drought and hail damage. Each year, about 75 percent of this country’s hop crop comes from the Yakima Valley, helping to make the United States the world’s top hop-producing nation.

Much has changed since Carpenter started his farm with little more than an oxcart and some rootstock from his father’s hop farm. But six generations later, one thing endures: The Carpenter family still owns the farm and still grows hops. It is one of several families — including multiple generations of the Morrier, Gamache, Perrault, Demarais, Brulotte, Gasseling and Smith clans — still running hop farms in the Yakima Valley.

They’ve made the region a sort of mecca for hops aficionados, who now embrace the many varieties of the plant for the flavor they can impart to beer. “You have people coming from every other part of the world because they want American hops,” says Elizabeth McGree, who serves on the Yakima Valley Tourism board. “During harvest season [August and September], it’s hard to find a hotel room in the Yakima Valley because of people coming to look at hops.”

Along with the sheer quantity of hops they produce, Yakima Valley farmers have gained a reputation for developing new, interesting and more flavorful hop varieties, a practice referred to as hop breeding. A visit to Yakima allows brewers to keep in touch with the latest creations and find out what might be on the horizon. There’s something deeply satisfying about wandering through the fields just before harvest, when the 20-foot-high hop plants are fat with cone-shaped flowers in long rows that stretch as far as one can see. 

“I remember going to big picnics when I was a kid and meeting the merchants, the brewers and other [hop-farming] families,” recalls McGree, who is VP of Morrier Ranch, her family’s farm, which has grown hops since 1915. “There were hundreds of people there.” 

Today, growing hops is big business. In 2016, the Yakima Valley hop crop was valued at about $380 million — a figure whose bearing on the local economy is significant, influencing sectors from farming equipment and fertilizer to tourism and jobs.

The craft brewing industry, which has grown dramatically in recent years, has had an especially big impact on hop farming. Historically, farmers have endured a fluctuating hop market, a supply-and-demand roller coaster with unstable prices that, at times, sank so low it was nearly impossible for farms to survive (and many didn’t). The new and increasing demand created by craft breweries has helped stabilize prices for hop farmers around the world.

While the 2017 harvest is still shaping up, we know this about last year’s hop crop:

-The Yakima Valley produced nearly 65.5 million pounds of hops.

-Washington farmers added nearly 37,500 acres of hops, an increase of 16.4 percent from the previous year.

-The Yakima Valley produces about 75 percent of the commercial hop crop in the United States, with most of the remainder coming from Oregon and Idaho. Only about 2 percent of the nation’s hops come from outside the Pacific Northwest.

The act of harvesting hops is a well-orchestrated process that involves bringing down the plants, picking the precious cones and drying them in huge kilns — activities once performed by humans but now managed increasingly by sophisticated machinery. 

Touring the fields, watching the harvest, talking to farmers and ultimately deciding which hops they want is an activity brewers refer to as hop selection, and its impact on the economy is relatively new. Thirty years ago, the brewing industry comprised a handful of super-size breweries, but today, the United States is home to more than 5,300 breweries, about 350 of them in Washington. 

Compared to the relatively bland beers produced by those old-school mega breweries with names you recognize from television commercials, today’s smaller craft  breweries create beers that rely more heavily on hops for flavor. Brewers can now choose from among more than 130 varieties of hops, many of them grown in the Yakima Valley.

1. Picking machines separate individual hop cones from the bines. 2. The hops take a beating on a waterfall conveyor to separate flowers from the leaves and bines. 3. Ranch owner Joe Morrier Jr. inspects hops during the kiln-drying process, a critical step in preserving the aroma, flavor and character of hops. 4. After drying, the hops are packaged into large bales and readied for shipment.

Like wine grapes, each hop variety has its own character and adds floral, fruity, bitter or earthy notes to the beer. Pale ale and India pale ale are two examples of popular craft beer styles that rely heavily on hops for their basic character. Typically, beer recipes use a combination of hop varieties, which means hops offer brewers the ability to create distinctive flavor profiles. Most of these varieties were developed during the past 30 years to satisfy the craft beer industry’s voracious appetite for new and more flavorful hops. 

Recalling her childhood on the farm, McGree waxes wistful. “There was a lot of hard work,” she notes, “like planting, … training the hops and drying hops in the kiln. [But] it was a wonderful experience.” 

Wonderful, but not stress-free. Each spring, thousands upon thousands of hop rhizomes, which lay dormant in winter, begin producing plants that are trained by hand to reach overhead trellises, which involves encouraging each plant’s bines (like vines) to wrap around guide wires that lead up to the trellis. As with most crops, hop farmers rely on weather for a good harvest: enough sun to draw the hop plant upward — hops can grow up to 12 inches a day — and enough precipitation to fill reservoirs in the mountains for irrigation throughout the growing season. Also, as with other modern crops, more farmers now grow USDA-certified organic hops to meet increasing demand from the brewing industry.

Although new varieties are developed to resist disease, the hop plant is particularly vulnerable to downy mildew, a fungus-caused disease that can devastate a crop. In the end, like any farming endeavor, it’s something of a gamble every year. Still, after 15 years away from Yakima and the Morrier businesses — the family also owns two hotels in Yakima, the Hilton Garden Inn and the Hotel Maison — McGree was drawn back to the area.

“I just can’t think of a better place to be than the Yakima Valley,” she says. In addition to her role on the family farm and the tourism board, she serves on the Washington Hop Commission, a commodity group representing hop growers.

Her compulsion to return is not unique.   

“Dad always told us that when you grow up on the farm, it is like hops are in your DNA,” says Meghann Quinn of B.T. Loftus Ranches, which has been growing hops since the end of Prohibition. “Dad also told us that … we weren’t welcome back on the farm until we’d graduated from college and had another career. Then we could come back to work with him if we wanted.”

Quinn’s elder brother, Patrick Smith, did just that. He left a successful career as an investment banker to return to the farm and is now working to take his father’s place. Quinn and another brother, Kevin Smith, are further proof that the hops don’t fall far from the bine. Together with her husband, whose name is also Kevin, and her two brothers, Quinn opened Bale Breaker Brewing Company in 2013 in a hop yard on the family farm just outside Yakima.

Mike Smith, Quinn’s father and the president of B.T. Loftus Ranches, affirms that hop farming isn’t an easy life. He’s been working the farm since he was 19. But when asked if he ever considers plowing the hops under to grow an easier or perhaps more profitable crop, he pauses for a second as if puzzled by the question.

“We’re hop farmers,” he says. “It’s what we do.” 

A version of this story appears in SEATTLE magazine’s September issue.

The Fresh Hop Advantage

When you hear the term “fresh hop” associated with a beer, it indicates the beer was made using hops that were harvested less than 24 hours before the beer was brewed. These beers can only be brewed during harvest season — August and September. While breweries in other regions of the country must rely on FedEx and UPS to deliver their fresh hops overnight, brewers in the Pacific Northwest enjoy the advantage of being able to drive to the farm, pick up the hops and get them into the brew kettle in a matter of hours.

The French Connection

Several of the oldest hop-farming families in the Yakima Valley are of French-Canadian descent. The 1890s saw several families migrate to Moxee, just southeast of present-day Yakima, because of land deals offered by the Moxee Company, a 7,000-acre farm started by Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society (and father-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell). The Moxee Company sold 50-acre farms to the new settlers for $750 each, charging an additional $75 a year for water.

 

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