In the Yakima Valley, a hops harvest brings brewers from all over the world to choose from dozens of familiar varieties and—with some luck—to find a special new one that could go into the next great beer back at their brewery.
The valley, located in central Washington, is known for its fertile agricultural abundance. Its number one crop is apples, but it’s also known for cherries, pears, wine grapes and several other fruit and vegetable crops.
This time of year though, it’s hops. That’s what has the area bustling with visitors. For much of September through the first part of October, growers and crews are busy harvesting, separating, cleaning and processing millions of pounds of hops.
Yakima Valley is the world’s second largest hops-producing region; Germany holds the top spot. Of some 43,000 acres of hops grown in the U.S., upwards of 75 percent are grown in the valley.
For the first time in the company’s history, Third Street Brewhouse sent its Brewhouse Manager Karl Schmitz and Lead Brewer Johan Sogge out to Yakima for the 2016 hop-selection process. The pair visited two of the area’s hops production facilities, Hopsteiner and John I. Haas Inc.
Spending much of one day at Hopsteiner, Schmitz and Sogge sampled more than 20 different lots — made up of six established varieties and four experimental ones — before touring one of the company’s farms and processing facilities. Later in the day, Haas offered four lot samples of a single variety. This was followed by a tour of the processing facility and brewhouse, ending the evening with a dinner party for industry folks.
The hops-selection process includes grinding the dried hops between the hands to release the oils, then burying one’s nose into a handful of the aromatic leafy pile. Subtle notes can be picked up by repeating this process over and over for each lot and variety. Fruity. Piney. Spruce tip. Red berry. Garlic. Orange cream. These were some of the terms used throughout the process to describe the varieties, which included Bravo, Sterling, Sorachi Ace, Columbus, Glacier, Calypso, Denali and Ekuanot.
The scale of these hops-processing operations is massive. Thousands of acres of harvested hops cones are moved from the field to the cleaning and separation belts, through the kiln and drying stage within 48 hours. Then they are packaged and cold stored — totaling millions of pounds — before being pelletized and shipped around the world.
“The amount of work that goes into those few weeks of harvest is really overwhelming,” said Schmitz, the Brewhouse manager. In the fields, hops are harvested by running special combines through the endless rows, cutting the bines from the lattice structures, performing an initial separation and filling up a truck bed within minutes. These trucks deliver to the cleaning facility and the process continues.
The trip was a quick one for the Brewhouse brewers, spending a single day selecting hops before returning home to Minnesota. But for Schmitz and Sogge, it was a memorable experience. They’ll never look at hops the same way again. All brewers, they said, should experience a hop harvest at least once in their brewing career.