Want to know what’s next in craft beer? Look first to Yakima.
About 75% of America’s annual hop harvest comes from this fertile, sundrenched valley in south central Washington. Every September, mechanized systems on huge farms begin by stripping hops from off their vines. Next the harvest is sorted, heated, and packaged into big bales. It’s an awesome display of American farming that results in approximately 45 million pounds of produce every year.
Harvest time sees brewers from around the world descend upon Yakima. This sleepy, rambling city — surrounded by golden-brown hills — transforms into craft beer mecca. Hop farmers and wholesalers host brewers in a process known as “hop selection,” which determines what and how much the breweries will buy.
In this way, beer flavor begins in Yakima. Hop varietals that currently define the industry —Citra, Mosaic, Simcoe — first took root as experimentations in these fields. To see where the industry is heading next, I recently joined the Founders Brewing team for three days in Yakima.
Changing Hop Trends
Like the overall beer category, much has changed in the past decade with hop harvests.
Craft producers now define the crops. It wasn’t always so.
Ten years ago, macro brands still held sway over Yakima Valley. About 80% of the harvest was alpha hops, which provide subtle bittering for light lagers. The other 20% was aroma hops. These deliver bolder aromatics and flavors more common in craft.
In 2019, those percentages have flipped. Now 80% of the harvest is aroma hops, while only 20% is alpha. U.S. consumers have developed a palate for new-age hops. Yakima is no longer under the thumb of global corporate beer.
Before these developments, you would not see such high attendance from microbrewers. Yakima in September was not always the unofficial craft beer conference that it’s become. With the recent surge in craft producers making this pilgrimage, competition among farmers has escalated, leading to unprecedented investment, growth, and innovation.
“There’s a focus now more on quality instead of quantity,” explains Founders Brewmaster Jeremy Kosmicki, who has attended hop harvest for eight years. “With the focus on aroma hops now we have so many harvesting innovations like picking early, picking late, drying differently — all which can affect beer aromas in ways that alpha hops could not.”
So what’s the hottest aroma hop? It’s still Citra. This is the go-to ingredient for the hazy, citrus, tropical New England IPAs currently defining the category. Anybody who believes that the NEIPA boom might slow down should yield to the Yakima farmers. They’re planting more Citra than ever have before, with no pullback in sight.
At the same time, innovation remains everything. Farmers who are first to market with new varietals that gain traction become the financial winners.
“We’re trying to find stuff that not even the brewers know they wanted,” says Jason Perrault, fourth-generation hop grower, and general manager of Perrault Farms.
He speaks from experience. His fields in the early 2000s birthed Citra, Mosiac and Simcoe. Perrault cautions that these wild successes, which were all nearly discarded at first as failures, are aberrations. He estimates that he throws away “99.95%” of his hop experimentations.
Which is why it’s critical for brewers like Kosmicki, visiting Yakima every September, to follow Perrault deep into the vast, muddy hop fields to see (and smell) what the farmers have cross-bred next.
“It’s so important to nurture that relationship between brewer and grower,” says the Founders Brewmaster. “The materials these guys make are so important to our beer.
To that end, while Citra and its tropical citrus profile remains king, farmers in 2019 are experimenting more with hops that give off coconut fruit. What’s grown today in Yakima is the popular flavors of tomorrow.
What Brewers Want
Every year, Brewers return from Yakima with a wide variety of hop orders.
“American brewers have to be way more flexible with hop purchases because of the fickleness of consumers today,” explains Fred Rizzo, directory of brewing operations, Avery Brewing.
And they also keep an eye on consistency.
“We’re looking for the quality and flavors that we expect,” says Kosmicki of Founders.
Beyond sampling the hops — rubbing cones in their hands and smelling the aromas released — the brewers read lab reports from the harvest. They’re looking for low seed counts (as higher means less consistency) and more hop oils (which gives a greater chance for better aromas).
Innovative brewers like Founders will also purchase extracted oils and lupulin (i.e. powder) from the hops, and make beers from these concentrated products.
Looking to the Future
Farmers were happy with the 2019 hop harvest. Low humidity and constant sun combined for good growing conditions.
Just about the only concern mentioned was the long-term sustainability of aroma hops. Because hazy juicy beers require a much-greater dosage of hops for their trademark flavor and aromatic profiles, some individuals on the growing side worried whether crop yields could meet demand in coming years. Already, there were reports of a Citra shortage.
Otherwise, the state of the industry appeared as sunny as the Yakima weather. Given this ideal climate, plus today’s drinkers becoming obsessed with the background of their beers, one could wonder whether the next step in consumer passion is visiting the hop farms themselves.
Patrick Smith, vice president of Loftus Ranches, a Yakima farm founded in 1920, could envision it.
“Ten years ago, there were no brewers coming to our farms,” Smith says. “You would get only the brewery’s procurement manager. Now the brewers are very interested in what we’re doing, and their customers are more interested in it as well.”
Kosmicki concurs. “I think consumers would be interested in the whole process of the growing and picking,” says the Founders Brewmaster, “all the little intricacies that go into making a great hop.”