It’s about a two-hour drive from Seattle to the Yakima Valley.
You spend the first hour climbing up through misty rainforests that will be familiar to anyone who watched Twin Peaks (which was filmed nearby.) Then, you get out of the rain shadow and the landscape changes instantly. The pines fade out into burnt grass that shines gold under the deep blue sky. It’s beautiful, but also barren. There are about eight inches of rainfall a year here, compared to 38 inches back in Seattle. This is the high desert of Washington State.
We crest a hill and the shining gold peaks stretch out before us. Here and there, the snow-capped peaks of (mostly) extinct volcanoes shimmer like mirages in the distance. But when we look down, the valley bottom is such a deep, dark green it feels like we’ve discovered some lost paradise.
This is the Yakima Valley, where the lions share of America’s apples, cherries, grapes – and hops – are grown.
Because it’s so far north, Yakima gets an hour more sunlight than its rival California. Because it’s so high, the pests and bugs that any farmer wages constant war against are minimal. Because of the volcanoes, the soil is rich and fertile. So when a massive irrigation project was installed to feed the fields via management of the snowmelt water from the mountains, solving the lack of rainfall, Yakima became America’s fruit bowl. Today, among other impressive stats, Yakima accounts for 70% of America’s hop crop, and 25% of the entire world’s supply.
When a brewer buys hops, they’re buying two different things: alpha acid and aroma. Bittering hops are added early in the boil, the alpha acids creating compounds that give beer its bitter edge and balance. When big multinational brewers buy hops, this is the main thing they’re looking for. They’re buying alpha acid rather than the hops themselves, so hop varieties that are high in alpha are encouraged. A few years ago, 70% of Yakima’s crop was grown for high alpha acid. Now, that’s changed.
“Since the growth of craft beer, the figures have reversed,” says Ann George of the trade Association USA Hops. “We used to sell lots of alpha hops to a few large brewers. But as they’ve looked to cut costs, and craft beer has grown, 70% of our crop is aroma hops, and we’re selling much smaller amounts to many more brewers.”
As you’ll appreciate if you’ve ever tried a double IPA, craft brewers want bitterness too. But they’re also much more passionate about aroma. Aroma hops are added at the end or even after the boil, keeping the delicate aromatic oils intact. Just as the English hop industry survives by focusing on aroma varieties that suit more flavourful beers such as cask ale, so craft beer has saved Yakima’s industry.
Just like wine, it’s all about terroir. English hops give earthy, spicy, peppery aromas that work wonderfully in cask ale. In Yakima, the cumulative effect of the soil, the sunlight and controlled irrigation is to produce a new palate of flavours that are largely responsible for the craft beer boom.
Alastair Hook has been coming to Puterbaugh Farm in Yakima every September since 1998, the year before he opened the Meantime Brewery. Puterbaugh has 1000 acres of hops, which to give some perspective, is equivalent to about 44% of the entire British hop harvest. Each hop variety must be picked at precisely the right time, and the timing varies by variety. This is getting towards the end of harvest season, and this is when brewers and hop merchants come to choose their varieties for the following year.
Hook is joined by Paul Corbett from British hop merchants Charles Faram. Corbett first visited Puterbaugh in 2002, when he bought ten bales of Cascade hops for the British market. Now, Faram’s ship 100 containers full of American hops every year, and sell more US hops than UK hops to British brewers.
We’re together in the office at Puterbaugh to find out why. On a smooth metal table, tightly packed bundles of hops in brown paper are split open and assessed.
We start with Cluster, the traditional variety on which the farm was founded and the only one they grew until the 1960s. We break the hops down by rubbing them against the heels of our palms, to release the aromatic oils and to warm and enliven them with body heat. Lemon, blackcurrant and boiled sweet aromas emerge.
Magnum is more herbal and spicy, still with strong lemon and a slight whiff of onion. Willamette – which was the main hop in Budweiser before Inbev took over Anheuser Busch and slashes costs wherever they could – is stronger on blackcurrant and pepper. Cashmere, a brand new Washington State hop that has just come through a successful test period, is rich in peach and mango aromas.
“Increasingly, we buy pretty things,” says Hook. “With relative prosperity and the basics covered, we can afford to buy things that please the senses. And when you put them in beer, that’s what these hops do.”
These delicate aromas flash off in brewing, and what you smell from rubbing hops is not always what you get in the finished beer. “It’s all about balance,” says Hook. “The big, strong oils can mask some of the prettiness behind, so you need to develop an understanding of how the flavours change from here to the brew.”
Hook of course recently sold Meantime for a sum of money that has not officially been disclosed, but is surely enough to mean he doesn’t have to work again. And yet here he is, analysing hops just as he’s done every year.
As more brewers learn more about the subtlety of hops, the delicate dance of different flavours they can evoke, we’re starting to see more elegance and sophistication in hoppy craft beers. They don’t have to be bitter hop bombs. They don’t have to smell like fresh grapefruit juice. And that’s just as well.
This year, the global hop harvest is on average between 30-40% down on what it should be. Every day, Charles Faram gets a call from another UK craft brewer asking for Cascade, Chinook, Citra and Nelson Sauvin, because those are the varieties used in successful craft beers right now. Many of these callers are going to be disappointed.
So there may not be as many super-hoppy beers around in the next year or two. But maybe this is an opportunity, driven by necessity, to dig deeper into the hops that are available, and discover new possibilities, new mellower, classier combinations and new symphonies of flavour.
Hoppy beers may just be about to get even more interesting.