Every fall, when hop season peaks in Washington’s Yakima Valley, brewers converge on farms to pick, crush and rub fresh cones between their palms with the hopes of finding the perfect batch for their brewing endeavors. Representatives from every type of brewery—from massive companies like MillerCoors to craft outfits like Modern Times, Half Acre and brewpubs like Pinthouse Pizza—congregate in the small agricultural town, where 75% of America’s hops are grown.
I recently visited the arid valley—unlike nearby Seattle, Yakima gets very little rain—to witness Founders Brewing’s annual hops pilgrimage. The nuances of the harvest are fascinating (see the gallery above), but the relationship brewers like Founders’ Jeremy Kosmicki have with farmers is especially striking. Kosmicki has been visiting the Yakima Valley for at least seven years, and reconnecting with the people who develop, grow and process hops is what he looks forward to the most. “We have so much mutual respect for one another,” he says.
Most of the hop farms in Yakima have been around for decades, and all six of the farms I visited were managed and staffed by the fourth- and fifth-generation families. For the farmers, working closely with craft brewers year after year pushes the producers to grow and evolve. “For a long time, the large brewers would come out and do selection and tour the fields to make sure quality at the farms was being adhered to, but it was mostly just business,” says Micah Cawley, the Midwest Regional Key Account Sales Manager for HAAS. Cawley served as mayor of Yakima for six years before joining the large production facility, and he’s seen harvest foot traffic increase significantly over the past few years thanks to the continuing interest in craft beer. “For a long time, hops were just used by the big guys to bitter beer, so varieties weren’t as important,” he says. “Now, craft breweries are pushing the envelope to make beer more flavorful and fun, and that’s helped the hop industry continue to thrive. The new school of brewers has really changed the game for us.”
Looking for new flavors for next-level beers means working directly with hops producers like Select Botanicals Group CEO Jason Perrault to develop innovative styles of hops. Walking the experimental fields with Perrault, the fourth-generation breeder known for his part in developing Simcoe, Mosaic and Citra hops, Kosmicki and his team smelled new breeds that evoked comparisons to fresh lettuce salad with ripe tomato, funky parmesan cheese, and one of the group’s favorite: zesty grapefruit. The latter is still in development (it can take almost a decade for a hop to go from idea to the brewery), but Perrault says in test batches so far it has yielded a flavor that’s almost identical to fresh grapefruit, complete with a pithy, rind-like bitterness.
In order for his creative process to work, Perrault says development must include a blend of his own experience, instinct and art, as well as feedback from brewers. “The trick, given the long breeding timeline, is to figure out what flavors and aromas will be in demand based upon consumer preferences in the next few years so we can design our selection processes around that,” he says, adding that it can take up to a decade to develop new hop breeds. “With that in mind, feedback from brewers is key. In the end it is our relationships with brewers that provide the ‘ear to the ground’ and ultimately play a key role in driving our breeding efforts.”
The craft beer segment has also helped bring newer generations back to the farm. Cherie Steinmetz marks the fifth generation at CLS Farms, the production facility where Founders sources their Centennial hops. A career in the family business was never something she initially considered, so she left Yakima to pursue a degree in exercise science at Central Washington University. But business has been so good that she’s since returned to carry on the legacy. “The craft beer industry is a huge reason why my generation is able to be a valuable tool for the business,” Steinmetz says. “We’re young, educated, excited and passionate about the industry that most of us grew up in. It really is a perfect fit.”
Even as craft breweries continue to open and expand, the industry is grappling with some oversupply issues, resulting in companies like 47Hops in Yakima declaring bankruptcy this fall, so maintaining close, collaborative relationships is more important than ever. For Kosmicki, knowing he can visit Roy Farms to pick up quality Azacca hops or Virgil Gamache Farms for Amarillo means Founders can continue to make beer with the best hops every year, and as Micah Cawley reiterates, “Craft brewers need hops to make beer and we want them to keep brewing, so it all comes together,” he says. “Their success is our success.”
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