Yakima. The name kinda sounds like a cat coughing up a hairball, but our guys have been there all week.
Why? This regurgitive-sounding name is to brewers what Graceland is to fans of The King. What Buckingham Palace is to fans of The Queen. What the Rhombus is to phans of Phish.
It’s where the world goes for their hops.
The Yakima Valley contains nearly 75% of the nation’s hop acreage, accounts for almost 77% of the country’s hop harvest, and exports two-thirds of those glorious hops to the rest of the world. The near-desert conditions of the valley and the cool, clean water provided by the Yakima River are a perfect storm for hops production. Hops usually take up to three years from first plant to full harvest — in the Yakima Valley, new plantings can produce a full crop in the first year.
In a word: it’s hops heaven. (Okay, that’s three words.)
Each year the hops producers of Yakima Valley extend an invitation to honored breweries throughout the country to select their hops for the coming year. Ryan, along with Head Brewer Brian Hink and Director of Brewing Operations Jimmy Valm, flew — in a commercial airliner, thank-you-very-much — out to Washington.
It’s Hops Selection 2016, baby!
On Monday, the guys trotted out to Hopsteiner. These guys have been growing, trading, breeding and processing hops since 1845 — nearly half-a-century before Washington became a state. They’re one of our main hop suppliers, and these guys know their stuff.
The guys gathered in a specially-designed room to inspect the samples. (Oh, the glorious beards that room must have seen!) As a processor, Hopsteiner collects samples from the various farms throughout the valley — they’ll eventually process the hops into pellet form. Most beer is brewed with pelletized hops — ours certainly are. Pelletized hops are basically powdered hops that dissolve faster and have less of a tendency to float, so more of that hoppy goodness goes directly into the brew.
As the guys inspect the hops, they inspect them visually, looking for a bright green color: brown and yellow colors can indicate that the cones were left up too long and the flavor components of the hops may have already started to oxidize and degrade. They are also looking for the moisture content, they need to be dry, but not so dry they crack. So they squeeze the samples a bit, massage them in ways that only hops deserve, looking for a dry feel that still bounces back into shape. They’re also looking for the lupulin glands — bright yellow pollen glands in the center of the cone. The more lupulin, the more intense the aroma will be.
Lupulin is important for good beer. It not only gives it that gorgeous hoppy smell, but it’s one of the chemicals that contribute to beer’s intoxicating effect. You know how a really hoppy session IPA with a low ABV can still hit you harder than, say, a pilsner with the same ABV? Primarily, it’s the lupulin in the extra hops that does it to you. You know how beer makes you feel more relaxed than, say, whiskey? Lupulin. You know how there are no vodka-drinking songs? Lupulin. You know how hops and marijuana are related? Lupulin is to hops as THC is to marijuana — it’s nowhere near as strong, but the effects are similar.
Thank you, sweet lupulin.
The guys did rubbings of five different hop varieties: Cascade (which is named for the larger region where Yakima sits), Centennial, Chinook (named for the Native American nation in the same area), Bravo, and Apollo.
Centennial and Apollo are the primary hops in Coastal Evacuation. “It’s all Apollo for the bittering as well as a bit in the dry-hopping,” Jimmy says, “so we are looking at the overall alpha acid content of that hop, but we also want one with a nice aroma of lime citrus, grapefruit, and a touch of that resinous dank.”
Centennial hops are the main beast for the whirlpool and dry-hop additions in Coastal, so the guys were really looking for aroma. “Centennial can be quite resinous with a very lemon-peel citrus note as well,” Jimmy says. “We have to be careful to select the batch that we not only like the best, but that matches the flavor profile of Coastal Evacuation.”
Cascade and Chinook are the primary hops in Cape May IPA, so the guys were focused on aroma with these, as well. Cascade and Centennial are similar in some ways, but Cascade is fruitier and not as resinous, with a distinct pine scent. “It’s a classic West Coast IPA hop,” Jimmy says.
“Chinook is one of my favorites,” Jimmy tells us. “We’re looking for a fruity sweetness that’s reminiscent of stone fruits like apricots and peaches — there’s also a little peppery kick in there and it is quite resinous. These two hops are what really give Cape May IPA it’s distinct fruity and dank aroma.”
Ryan agreed: “DANK, brah.”
Bravo is a high alpha acid hop — these are the chemicals that supply bitterness — so it’s used in several brews, particularly our Belgian Ales. “Again, here we are looking for a soft bitterness, nothing too astringent, and we definitely don’t want any resinous aromas for these beers,” says Jimmy.
After the selection, the guys toured Hopsteiner’s processing plant. Our guys were seriously impressed by their setup. “It’s incredible the amount of investment in infrastructure,” Ryan said.
On Tuesday, the guys toured a few more plants. Processing plants, that is. First up was Brewers Supply Group (BSG) — “a gorgeous facility,” Brian says. Shane, the Operations Manager, spent about an hour-and-a-half with our guys. BSG has designed their plant with expansion in mind, so these guys have room to grow.
Next up was Yakima Chief-HopUnion (YCH) — essentially both a processing plant and grower’s cooperative. We get all of our Amarillo, Simcoe, Citra, Zythos, Saaz, and a handful of other smaller, more specialty hops from YCH. “These hops make up City to Shore, Summer Catch, Sea Mistress, and a bunch of other ones,” Brian says, “so I was really excited to check out their fields and plants.” Andy, the Northeast Sales Director, showed the guys around the plant, and from there they hopped in one of their vans (blame Brian for the pun) with some guys from LA’s Golden Road Brewing to head out to Carpenter’s Ranch.
We want to go to Carpenter’s Ranch. They’ve been growing hops since 1868 — for those of you keeping track, no, Washington’s not yet a state — and the farm is still very much a family operation. “There were uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters and second cousins and family dogs everywhere!” Jimmy enthuses.
Tyler, a 7th generation hops farmer, took over two hours with our guys, on an in-depth tour of the plant and some of their fields. Carpenter has a patented means of removing the hop bines in the field. Most farms cut the bines and supports at the bottom of the bine, then a combine comes through, cuts the top, and throws the whole bine in the back for processing. At Carpenter, they run the bine through a specialized circular blade that cuts off all of the foliage and spits out the thick bine, making processing much easier. Then, they travel across many shaker tables and belts and pickers, until only the hop cones are left. From there, they’re dried out and sent to a baler, where they’re wrapped into 200-pound, 4’x2’x2’ gigantic bales of hops.
Next, Tyler showed them some experimental varieties they’re trialing. “The hope is that they become the next Citra or Simcoe or Amarillo,” Jimmy says, but right now, they’re just numbered varieties. “I’m very excited for these. Some of them were huge cones with a ton of lupulin glands; usually a very large cone means very little in the way of lupulin glands. They were a touch dank, but had a nice spiciness to them and a lemony citrus. I think they’d be great in a Saison or an Americanized Kolsch.
“Seeing the farms and meeting the farmers and having a detailed view of the processing and pelletizing plants was very informative, and has given me a new appreciation for the process as well as the people involved in harvesting the hops and getting them to us,” Jimmy says. “They’re just as passionate about what they do as we are about brewing, maybe even more so!”
With all this traveling and walking through plants and traipsing through 150-year-old farms, you’d think our guys worked up a thirst, no?
Of course they did!
However, according to Jimmy, there are surprisingly few breweries in Yakima, but there are some great bars with huge selections. Jimmy loved getting back to his roots — having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, is it any wonder he became a brewer?
The only brewery they visited was Bale Breaker Brewing Company, just outside of town. Of course, they grow their own hops. “The President and Owner Meghann Quinn was a great host and showed us their impressive facility,” Ryan says. The guys got to talk shop with the Brewmaster, Kevin Smith, and the Head Cellarman.
Unsurprisingly, “all their beers are hop-bombs,” Jimmy says, “but very good.” Ryan was a big fan of their Bottomcutter Double IPA and their Topcutter IPA.
“It was definitely an IPA kinda week!” Jimmy says.
The guys will be back at work soon, exhausted from their trip, but with wonderful ideas for what they’ve learned. The Yakima Valley has opened up for them, and, ultimately, for you, dear beer drinker. The bounties of the region are for your pleasure, and we’ll keep bringing the best of Washington all the way home to Cape May.