Hops for the World

Some IPAs currently in our fridge

Some IPAs currently in our fridge

We hopheads love our India Pale Ales. Call them American, English, West Coast, Imperial, Double, Double Dry-Hopped or whatever. Brew them gold, white, black or red. What we really care about are the hops. Is that a piney Simcoe, a citrusy Amarillo, perhaps a floral Cascade, or maybe an earthy, herbal Saaz?

Whatever your beer style, hops are a critical ingredient. But where did the hops in that aromatic craft IPA or that Bud Lite come from? There’s a pretty good chance at least one variety came from Washington’s Yakima Valley.

A hop bine ready for harvest

A hop bine ready for harvest

Last Wednesday when I pulled into the city of Yakima, the 2015 hop harvest was in full swing. As 115 homebrewers where arriving for YCHHops’ two-day Hop and Brew School, 150 professional brewers were leaving. When I checked into the hotel, the clerk mentioned that another group was also at the hotel, “and there’s one coming in from England. Who would think, right here in little Yakima?”

In the brewing world, little Yakima, population under 100,000, is a big deal. Globally, the two largest hop producers are Germany and the United States, and the Yakima Valley is the largest hop-growing region in the U.S.

There, during summer days when temperatures soar into the triple digits, hops plants happily soak up water supplied from the Yakima River in order to grow as much as a foot a day, snuggly wrapping their bines around rope trellises. In good years, they climb the 18-foot span to the top by the Summer Solstice. With no way to continue up, they turn around and head back to earth. By late August, the bines are loaded with mature green cones ready for harvest and for Hop School.

Dave and Carol Capelle

Homebrewers Dave and Carol Capelle

On Wednesday evening, we homebrewers were shuttled some 20 miles to join the out-going professional brewers for dinner at Perrault Farms, outside Toppenish, Washington. I chatted with craft brewers from Arizona and a couple of aspiring craft brewers from Denver. I enjoyed Dave and Carol Capelle’s stories of their homebrewing adventures in Richland, Washington where their brewing system, including a 14-gallon conical fermenter, takes up one side of their three-car garage.

Then I discovered the real deal: a warehouse with literal mountains of freshly dried hops and a crew of workers wrapping and sewing up huge bales from the 2015 harvest that, over the next three years, will be used to brew beers all over the world. I began listening in as Jaime Avalos, a plot manager for Select Botanical Group who had stopped by, answered another homebrewer’s questions.

Sewing up a hop bale

Sewing up a hop bale

I stood mesmerized by the machine that dropped a giant bale of recently dried hops onto a large rectangle of wrapping material. Two men immediately moved in and sealed the length of the fabric. Biceps bulging, they shoved each bale off so it stood on one end. As if wrapping a gift, one man would tuck in the edges and quickly sew everything up before pushing the bale over a wooden triangle. This flipped the bale, allowing the other end to be sewn up. Another man then wedged a dolly under the bale and ferried it to the line of finished bales which would soon go into cold storage.

Ismael Mancilla, 42 years on the job, and Jaime Avalos

Ismael Mancilla, 42 years on the job, and Jaime Avalos

“How much does one of those weigh?” I asked Avalos.

“Two hundred pounds.”

“Do women ever work at this job?

“They generally don’t have the strength. Even some new guys work a shift or two and quit.”

Avalos continued to answer our questions. Baling runs 24/7 this time of year. Workers are paid by the bale, and an experienced man can earn over $600 during a single 12-hour shift. “There’s one man who’s worked here 42 years,” Avalos said. “Of course, he doesn’t actually do this job anymore.”

AHA Director Gary Glass

AHA Director Gary Glass

We spent the next two mornings in presentations with speakers like long-time beer writer Stan Hieronymus and Gary Glass, Director of the American Homebrewers Association. In the afternoons, we toured YCH facilities. We watched hops being processed from the minute they came in from the field until the dried cones were baled and stored. We toured the plant that produces hop pellets and extract oils and walked through experimental hop fields where Jason Perrault explained why it takes 10 years to bring a new variety to market.

Hop School speakers and activities change each year. Some participants were attending for the fourth or fifth time. If you’re interested in attending next year, start checking the Hopunion website in May for more information.

More photos:

Leslie with Jeff Perrault

Leslie with Jeff Perrault

Jason Perrault

Jason Perrault

First step in "the picking room" where hops arrive from the fields

First step in “the picking room” where hops arrive from the fields

Kiln-drying hops

Kiln-drying hops

Freshly dried hops soon to be baled

Freshly dried hops soon to be baled

A truckload of hop bales

A truckload of hop bales

Unloading bales of dried hops that will be pelletized (turned into pellets)

Unloading bales of dried hops to be pelletized (turned into pellets)

Worker uses a machete to cut open a bale for samples

Worker uses a machete to cut open a bale for samples

Drums of hop oil extract

Drums of hop oil extract ready for delivery

Hop pellets ready for delivery

Hop pellets ready for delivery

 

Speak Your Mind

*