Hops are an amazing thing. A dynamic, natural perennial flower of a climbing bine, they are bred, grown, processed and wielded by humankind - a personal favorite illuminating the marriage of art and agriculture. They provide the defining spice and character to the world’s most popular social and gastronomic drink: beer. Hops possess a kaleidoscope of flavors and aromas including over 500 different flavor compounds ranging from the uniquely American citrus and pine to classic floral and herbs and modern tropical fruit to even cedar and coconut.
Accepting our invitation for hop selection for the 2019 harvest was our opportunity to select specific lots of some of our favorite varieties - and also to personally explore and connect with the source of one of our most romantic ingredients.
Our pilgrimage to the Yakima Valley began with a long, anticipatory trip to Seattle. The feeling of having embarked on something grand was preluded before we touched down: the grandness of the Cascades, the beautiful Puget Sound and almost mythological omnipresence of the snow-capped (and still volcanically active) Mount Ranier. Our first steps off the plane we were greeted with cool, refreshing breaths and the scent of fresh pine. We were far from home.
Having arrived late, we embarked on some brief but inspired Northwest beer scene reconnaissance at the coveted Holy Mountain Brewing Company. Scooting in the rear garage door entrance by the train tracks revealed a healthy, comfortable, stylish taproom with a thoughtful selection ranging from the paradoxically clean yet fresh mixed-fermented golden ales, to their signature The White Lodge witbier (I have been on a huge Twin Peaks kick lately so…) and a timely fresh-hop IPA screaming with citrusy, dank, peppery character with a clean, elegant, glittering clarity. A quick stop to meet an old friend at the Teku Tavern - a hip neighborhood spot with cask ales, a heart-stopping selection of boutique bottles and tons of fresh, local offerings reinforced that the long-standing culture of beer in the Northwest is thoroughly cared for and looking toward the future.
The next morning a nearly 3-hour drive toward Yakima in our sweet rental minivan was filled with inspirational beer talk and eager anticipation. The deep green, pine-covered mountains of the coast gave way to arid, rolling hills and open sky reminiscent of Sonoma County.
The Yakima Valley is southeast of Seattle in the Columbia Basin in South Central Washington State. It takes its name from the Yakama Nation Native American tribe whose reservation constitutes a significant portion of the land. With plenty of sunshine and considerable elevation, it took the Yakima-Tieton Irrigation Canal in the first decade of the 20th century to become one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the nation. Orchards teem with fruit including apples, cherries, peaches, and plums and vineyards grow varietals such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. For our purposes, the magnetic fact is that Yakima is one of the most productive hop-growing regions in the world (Southern Germany’s Hallertau is the largest) and is home to around 80% of all US hop production. For comparison, New Zealand has about 1000 acres of hops, the entirety of the UK has about 2500 acres, and a single farm in Yakima can boast as many as 3000.
We finally pulled up to Yakima Chief Hops (YCH) and as soon as we stepped out of the aforementioned sweet minivan we were overcome with the bustle, enthusiasm and tidal wave of freshly harvested hop aroma. Every face at YCH was beaming with excitement and eager with welcome.
Yakima Chief Hops is a combination of 14 grower-owners in the Pacific Northwest dedicated the highest quality product, responsible and transparent business practices and, I believe, personifying the connection of obsessive agriculture and brewer’s art. A member of the Hop Breeding Company (HBC), they have yielded many now-iconic hop brands such as Citra, Mosaic, Ekuanot (E-Q-a-knot, formerly Equinox) and most recently, Sabro. The Yakima Chief Ranches section of YCH focuses on the development of new varietals, many of which were featured in some of the fascinating beers would be sampling shortly.
For our hop selection, we were escorted into our private room at catered to by the amazingly knowledgeable and hospitable employees at YCH. We had 2 hours to evaluate our 2 chosen varieties - a time that seemed like a huge chunk but honestly, we used every minute.
First up was Citra, a signature hop in our Zote and Citronious IPA. First bred in 1990 and released in 2007 by Perrault Farms (a YCH owner-grower) it has become a poster child for new, dynamic and unique varietals that have come to define modern hop flavor and aroma. We were given samples of just-harvested and dried whole hops from 3 different farms from the 2019 harvest. With only numeric identifiers, we were reduced to our senses and impressions before learning their exact providence and specific makeup (alpha acid, oils, percentage of different flavor compounds - myrcene, geraniol, linalool etc). Pinching off a healthy chunk and rubbing enthusiastically between our palms (Jason was ace at this: “Ed, ya gotta HEAT ‘em up, SHRED ‘em a bit!”) revealed electrically intense aromas that were surprisingly distinct. Jason was in rare form and we both kept remarking “how cool is THIS???” (perhaps with a few more joyous expletives). One example showed a strong, fresh lemongrass quality, another one full floral notes, and another a fascinating combination of lemon zest and aniseed. It defied belief that these were all the same varietal, from the same part of the world, from the same year (in fact, the same few days). Eye-opening, educational and inspiring.
Mosaic, also a result of the passion and creativity of Perrault Farms and YCH, was first bred in 2001 and released in 2012. It was meant to capture the intense character of Simcoe (think Russian River) and showcases some of the modern, fruity (Blueberry) qualities from varieties such as Citra. As one of the predominant hops in our best-selling Zote (formerly Focus) IPA and the single hop in our coveted Zero Zero DIPA, this one was critical to get right. Jason and I were stunned at the variety in the 3 examples: one earthy and dank (I loved this one), one lemony much like the Citra example, and one amazingly clean with shouts of blueberry. Before any details were revealed we filled out exhaustive sensory sheets with our impressions - categories such as citrus, pine/resin, berry, earthy/woody, smoky, herbal, tropical fruits, melon and even cream, coconut and cedar (displayed in newer varieties such as Sabro).
After selection, we tasted beers brewed with new and experimental hop varieties brewed at YCH at their own small brewery in the facility. The fridge was bursting with beers brought to be shared, discussed and chatted over. Spending time talking and tasting with colleagues ranging from Boulevard Brewing’s Head Brewer Steven Pauwels, Firestone Walker, Scofflaw, Creature Comforts, and the inimitable Luke from Epic Beer (New Zealand) was a real thrill. Inspiring was to see a range of modern lager styles including Northwest and experimental varieties. Bale Breaker’s 2019 Harvest IPA “In The Lup” was a standout, how amazing is a brewery ON a hop farm for demonstrating the inexorable connection between land and pint?
Our visit to Gassleing Farms completed the loop for us; farmer and brewer, art and agriculture. With 700 acres devoted to hops, Gasseling is a family farm that has been committed to producing the finest hops for over 100 years. Harvest is 40 days, 24 hours a day and during season Gasseling employs 65 workers. That day they were harvesting fresh Mosaic hops and the bustle of activity and inescapable aroma were infectious.
The kilns were one of the most exciting stops while touring the farm. Massive quantities of Mosaic hops were drying at 135 degrees over a 10 hour period at a depth of 31 inches. This sight and smell reminded me of how fresh the samples we selected just hours before truly were.
Standing in the fields themselves was exciting, humbling, and peaceful. The 20-foot climbing bines burst with the plump, pale green hops and appeared much like clusters of grapes.
The day closed with a brewers dinner at a fabulous local restaurant. The food and feel personified the generosity, locality, and collegiality of Yakima itself, every employee at YCH and the larger world of brewers, all coming together to celebrate this amazing product.
On our long return home, jet lag and fatigue were tempered by a revived curiosity and buzzing inspiration; electric and heady with a fresh aroma, sticky with hops.