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A Booming Industry: Hop Growers in Yakima Valley

March 25, 2016
When you think central Washington agriculture, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Sure — apples. With a yield of 10-12 billion apples per year, it’s the crop that’s defined the region for well over a century. But this is also where roughly 77 percent of the nation’s hops are grown. And with the explosion of craft beers in the past decade or two, hop growers are finally stepping out from under the shade of all those orchards and into the spotlight. You could think of them as sort of the new rock stars of the agriculture industry.
 
Just as wine connoisseurs want to learn about viticulture, an emerging class of beer aficionados wants to know more about the ingredients that make up their brews — the hops. They want to know the variety, the individual characteristics of that variety, and —like grocery shoppers who prefer produce raised nearby — they often ask if the hops are locally grown. 
 

Image courtesy of Jason Perrault.

 
According to brewmaster A.J. Keagle of Yakima Craft Brewing Co., “People want to know exactly where it comes from.” That, in turn, is driving marketing for breweries of all sizes, Keagle notes. Next time you buy a Rainier at the market, for instance, check the message around the top of the can: “Made with Yakima Valley hops.”
 

Image courtesy of Hop Growers of America.
 
But it goes beyond hops. Beer drinkers and brewers also want to know more about the growers themselves. Homebrew tours of hop operations have become popular outings around the region, and farmers are more likely to have met professional brewers face to face rather than shipping their crops to faceless buyers.
 
Overall, it’s a big shift for hop farmers, many of whom are no doubt more comfortable being on tractors than on TV. “You’re really talking about a different mentality,” says Jason Perrault, a fourth-generation farmer from Toppenish. “It’s amazing the interest you get just from the general public.”
 
Public perceptions haven’t been the only adjustment, however. As market demands have evolved, Perrault and other hop growers have changed out much of what grows in their fields. They’ve converted from alpha-variety bittering hops, which have preserved and seasoned traditional mass-produced American beers for years, to aroma varieties, which flavor all those signature Northwest craft brews.
 
A decade ago, about 70 percent of the Yakima Valley’s hop crop consisted of alpha varieties, according to Jaki Brophy, communications director of the Moxee-based trade organization Hop Growers of America. Now, Brophy says, craft brewing demands have turned production numbers upside down: 70 percent of the crop is aroma varieties, while alphas account for just 30 percent. 
 
These changes have complicated things for farmers. Aroma varieties can be “a little more particular” when it comes to growing conditions, Brophy says, and they bring lower yields. Last year, for example, Zeus, a popular dual-purpose hop, yielded 2,819 pounds per acre in Washington, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national hop report. Meantime, Crystal, an aromatic, produced just 1,183 pounds per acre.
 
Chris Swedin has brewed beer in Yakima since the days of Bert Grant, who was one of the first of the modern craft brewers. Swedin worked for a decade with the late Grant, who opened his microbrewery in 1982. Swedin has watched the hop industry change with consumer demands, and he’s watched beer drinkers become more sophisticated, more inquisitive — and more opinionated. Some aren’t shy about buttonholing brewers and offering their own ideas for blending certain hops, or suggesting varieties that might improve the taste. “You don’t see anyone saying that to the chef who just cooked your meal,” Swedin laughs.
 

Image courtesy of Hop Growers of America.
 
He’s not crying in his beer, though. Greater understanding of the brewing and growing processes means a more secure industry, so he welcomes it. So does Perrault, who says he and other hop growers have long endured volatile markets. After several lean years, they’d catch up with a good year that sent prices spiking and kept their farms going.
 
But Perrault says the market forces at work in recent years have brought a much-appreciated dose of stability. “It’s not something we’re used to seeing in our industry,” he says. “The struggle thus far is keeping up with the demand.”
 
For a consumer-friendly overview of hop varieties, check this guide. Better yet, go try some of the beers they help build at one of Washington’s craft breweries. And if you like good beer — maybe with maybe a little music thrown in for good measure — some upcoming festivals around the Northwest and across central Washington could hit the spot.
 
 

John Taylor

John Taylor is the digital managing editor for six Townsquare Media radio stations in Yakima, Wash. A veteran newspaper editor, page designer and reporter, his favorite pursuits usually involve writing, the outdoors or out-of-the-way bars. He's on TwitterInstagram and LinkedIn.

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