Hops – those perennial, marijuana-related flowering cones – have come a long way in the collective mind of the beer-drinking world. Originally, they were considered an important ingredient largely for the antiseptic properties they bring to the table, while herbs and juniper berries got all of the taste-related glory. But now we’ve seen the light, and modern brewers praise the gods of agriculture for the aroma, flavor, and bitterness brought forth by the humble hop.
Any expert will tell you: Washington’s Yakima Valley is to hops what California’s Sonoma Valley is to wine – a latitudinal sweet spot. And since the hops that were planted here in March are being harvested as you read this, our fearless leaders – Ryan, Chris and Bob – flew west last week for this year’s hop selection process.
“Our visit was amazing,” Bob said. “We rubbed the hops together with our hands, compared notes and decided which we will use in our beer going forward. We also visited the plant that processes the hops into pellets, and spoke with a scientist who creates new hop varieties.”
Now, the guys are off to Denver’s Great American Beer Festival, and while we eagerly await their return, we’ll fill you in on a conversation we had yesterday with hop industry expert Phillip Davidson. His company, Hopsteiner, is one that our guys met with in Yakima, and he’s got the skinny, er hoppy, on all you need to know…
Walk us through the hop harvest timeline. Well, harvest happens once a year. It takes about a month, from the last week of August until the first week of October, domestically. This is when we need to get the hop bines down in the field. And I do mean ‘bines’ with a ‘B.’ Not ‘vines’ with a ‘V.’
What’s the difference? Vines climb using tendrils that grab and hold – picture a grape vine. A bine climbs by wrapping itself around something. In this case, it follows the sun up a rope. And, eventually, the hops have to be removed from it.
Then what? You’re separating them from the leaves and the stems, and then you’re kilning the hops, or drying them in a kiln. So you get rid of all the moisture, and make them stable. Next is baling, where the dried hops are compressed into rectangular prisms about five feet tall and 2.5 or three feet wide. There are 200 pounds of hops, give or take, in each bale. These are taken to a storage facility where they are refrigerated until they are purchased either as leaf hops directly from the bale, as pellets or as extract.
How much of this is done by hand, and how much by machine? It’s a pretty labor-intensive industry, absolutely, and not just the harvesting. There are about 900 hop plants to an acre, and there are 40,000 hop acres in the United States. Each plant requires someone tying the top of its rope to a trellis and anchoring it to the ground on the bottom. And every plant has to be trained by hand around the rope to get it started.
How many brewers descend upon Yakima Valley this time of year? I don’t have a hard figure, but for me personally, for the company I work for, I cover Maine to Washington, DC and out to the Pennsylvania border to Ohio, and I have about 17 customers coming over three weeks.
And how many brewers depend on Yakima Valley? It’s a worldwide dependency. The raw material is valued by its alpha acid, the bittering component, and every brewery everywhere needs it. The US, which is growing about 35-40 percent of the world’s hops, is making a major contribution to that.
How much creativity is there in hop farming? I wouldn’t call it creativity. It’s science. I will say that hops are dioecious, meaning they are male and female, so breeding and crossing is easy. But to take a seed and turn it into a new breed is a 10 to 12-year process. And if you start with 10,000 seeds, you’re going to have one or two that make it through.
What do the brewers do when they come for hop selection, exactly? We show them our ranch and our processing facilities. We introduce them to the people running our farms and plants and basically develop those relationships. This is a relationship-driven industry.
And how does the actual choosing play out? We give them bale cuts, or brewers cuts, which are sections of a bale that’s been cut out, represented with a lot number, and put in packaging. If we have eight Cascade lots, the brewers see one cut from each. The brewers open those pouches, look at them physically, and look at data on them. There is USDA data here from the state of Washington that gives the total count of leaves and stems, the percentage by weight of seed, the measurement of the alpha acid. The other big part is aroma, so they’ll crush it in their hands, rub them together until they burst the lupulin glands to make sure they smell the right way.
Doesn’t it get difficult to differentiate after a while? There are means of resetting the nose, like sniffing coffee beans for instance. And you’re only picking Cascade against Cascade, and you select in the order in which you want to select, usually moving from fine, delicate aromas all the way to big, pungent hops, toward the end.
Is there much variation in hops of the same variety grown on the same lot of a hop ranch? There can be. Terroir is a big part of hop growing, as is microclimate. There are slight soil variations as well.
How is the current drought affecting hop production? It wasn’t a problem this year. If it persists into next year, it will be.
What are people most surprised to learn about the hop industry? That it’s so hard. It’s an awful lot of management of land and understanding the dynamics of each variety, and understanding there’s a lot of money involved. This is a niche agricultural product, so the equipment is only used to harvest hops and is very expensive. We have to set trellises up to harvest grow and nothing else uses that. It’s a $10,000/acre investment. It’s logistically and financially demanding.
But the return must be considerable, considering the current craft beer boom? Hops is boom and bust, every time. Where there’s high demand, people start growing. Eventually they have too much and the bottom falls out. Currently hops are in boom – we are closing in on record total acreage. But things are always in flux. We’re experiencing a major market shift between bitter varieties like Columbus and Nugget to aroma varieties like Cascade and Centennial.
What’s the next sexiest? I have no idea. I want to hope it’s Eureka, which is a new variety to us we just released to the market. But
that’s something I don’t get to really determine, and something I try my very best not to influence. I’m here to support brewers and what the brewers need, and not tell them what’s right and wrong. And as for the next sexiest hop, the work going into making that starts 10 or 12 years before it hits the markets, and we’re talking 10 or 12 million dollars worth of research. The fact that it smells good is not the only important thing. A hop needs to grow well, it needs to yield per acre well, and it needs to be resistant to diseases and easy to pick.
And it’s that research that takes 10-12 years? How much of that time is simply waiting for the plant to mature? Well, hops do not produce a crop their first year. Everywhere else, it take three years for a hop plant to mature. In Yakima, it takes two. So to even be able to look into a plant to determine what’s good and not, that takes time, at least two years. Even then, you don’t scale up from one plant to a thousand acres. You scale up to four plants, maybe.
What do we say to people who call this a one-dimensional – ie, beer only — crop? There is development of alternative uses. Potentially, it could be cultivated for phytoestrogen for human hormone therapy. And it’s antiseptic, so it can used to supplant antibiotics in animal seed.
Can I ask what drew you to the hop industry? I was a professional brewer before this, and I was looking for an opportunity to… what’s the right word? Specialize myself, develop a knowledge base about a particular important aspect of all beer, but especially craft beer.
Does it bug you the brewers seem to get all the craft beer glory? Me, personally? No. There are hop growers who command a particular status in the brewing industry. But generally speaking, we are talking family businesses, and I don’t know if they want the fame. You should ask the barley growers. It takes a lot more barley to make beer than hops!
Any reason you’re especially excited to be working with Cape May Brew Co? Oh, absolutely. You’re definitely a brewery that is growing and maturing in a marketplace, Jersey, that has a lot of opportunity for growth. And you’re making really good beer.