In a discreet office trailer tucked between two imposing warehouses, Chuck Silva’s hands are coated with an earthy green powder, his palms and fingers sticky with resin. He hovers over a purple table now covered in broken bricks of hops. The then-Green Flash brewmaster is lost deep in evaluation, his red beard sprinkled with flakes of Centennial hops. Silva’s olfactory senses are heightened, hard at work taking deep whiffs of a sample he’s crushed rigorously between his palms. Cupping his hands, he inhales and takes in the bouquet. His eyes dart from one brick to the next, pen hitting paper as he scribbles notes on color and aroma. He uses words like “verdant,”“grassy” and “fruit jam” to describe his perceptions.
This is a quintessential component to hop harvest, a monthlong period beginning early September when brewers from around the world descend on the sleepy county of Yakima, Washington, to make farm visits, build relationships with distributors and growers, and select their hops for next year’s brews. Selection, as it’s called, is the process by which a brewer will examine multiple offerings of the same hop varietal in the pursuit of the best crop one can find. This subjective process varies from brewer to brewer; it’s almost ritualistic to watch as they carefully examine and analyze the year’s yield.
“I look at color first to get an overall feel for the plant,” says Silva, examining a recently opened brewer’s cut, presented neatly in wrapped brown paper. The 7-inch by 5-inch block is about an inch and a half thick, pulled by expert hands from a 200-pound bale. It represents thousands of pounds of hops just like it waiting for purchase. Breweries have contracts for each hop varietal sewn up ahead of time, often a year or more in advance, but these visits are a hands-on opportunity for brewers to select the crop they like the most, ordering the contracted weight from the crop of their choosing through a distributor. “There is a lot of diversity; that’s the eye-opening part of it,” says Silva. “Even with the same hop grown in the same region, there’s still diversity in aroma profiles, which will translate to aroma and flavor in the beer. To be consistent and get the same profiles in your beer is a huge advantage.”
Silva continues with his analysis, examining the outer cross section. “I see some medium yellows, showing a lot of lupulin. But here’s where the magic happens,” he says, pulling a chunk from the middle to avoid an oxidized sample. The magic act Silva refers to unfolds as he grinds up several dried buds in his hands, inhaling the resulting aromas deeply. “I warm it up and crush it in my palm,” says Silva. “That [will] volatilize the essential oils in those lupulin glands so I can really get a full hit of what the aromatics are.”
His analysis is watched closely by Jay Prahl, a representative of Hopsteiner, the distributing company where Silva and his fellow travel companion and brewmaster, Pat McIlhenney of Alpine Beer Co., are currently making selections. McIlhenney’s small yet well-respected brewery was acquired by San Diego staple Green Flash Brewing in November 2014, and before Silva’s recent departure (since the time of this trip Silva has resigned as Green Flash brewmaster after 11 years to begin Silva Brewing) the pair had worked together to promote their hop-forward, IPA-focused brands. During the course of the trip through Oregon and Washington, the two spend close to a week visiting farmland and distributors like Hopsteiner for selections.
“This one’s pretty ripe smelling,” says Silva, taking another sniff. “There’s some OG in there. Pungent. This would not be a choice for me compared to some of the others, just because it’s more pungent than I want my Centennial to be. I’m looking for more floral, pine and then maybe a little fruitiness.”
“Would you consider this off-type?” asks Prahl.
“For me, yes, because of its pungency, for this hop,” replies Silva. Five more brewer’s cuts grace the table for evaluation, and after a 15-minute discussion with McIlhenney, a favorite is found and a portion of this year’s Centennials is ordered.
A History of Hops
Roughly 77 percent of all American hops are grown in Yakima County, and when Oregon and Idaho are taken into account, you have 99 percent of all hop farms within the United States. Its location makes it a unique fertile valley for the hop plant. “The Cascade Mountains [to the West] were a stopping point for a prehistoric thing called the Great Missoula Floods,” explains Prahl. “The land was glaciated, and as ice dams burst they’d blast water from Montana up the Cascades and blew terrific soil over here.” Today, Yakima can thank the weather and geographic location for its bounty. “We get 300 days of sun, and the latitude being around the 45th parallel means we get the right amount of daylight in the summer.” Prahl explains that growth doesn’t happen as well to the South because of less sunlight, and similarly hop growth won’t succeed to the North due to cold stresses. “All around the world, around the 45th parallel hop production is concentrated for commercial use,” says Prahl.
The fruitfulness of this region was first realized by settlers traveling west in the 1890s. Many growers today have family ties dating back four or five generations to the original landowners who called the region home. Blake Crosby, of Crosby Hop Farm LLC in Woodburn, Oregon, is a fifth-generation grower on his family’s land. “Originally, hops was a very small industry new to the Northwest because it had also migrated West from the East,” says Crosby. “Disease pressures in an era that didn’t have the skill set or technology to fight the pathogens were an issue for hops [on the East Coast] ... but by the time the mildews of the day caught up to the Pacific Northwest, they had the technologies and skill sets of how to deal with those issues. So hops really became fundamental to the region in that era.”
Over 120 years later hops are now a booming agricultural industry in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to the rise of the beer industry and its obsession with hop-forward beers like IPAs and pale ales. The last 10 to 15 years have been nothing short of transformative for growers, who previously catered to larger breweries interested in bittering hops as opposed to aromatic varieties. The popularity of these styles has led to brews containing four to five times as much hops as traditional American lagers, as well as a desire for flavor-forward hops. Due to market demands, growers have come together to spread the higher cost of production. In some cases growers have become distributors themselves, like the Crosby Hop Farm, which sources hops throughout the region and in the last few years has purchased its own pelletizer to bring operations in-house. The large, two-story machine is no small investment, but today roughly 80 percent of hops are delivered in pellet form. “For us it was a no-brainer,” says Blake Crosby. “If we were going to build a brand around quality and service and integrity, we had to make the investment and really vertically integrate that process.”
Room to Grow
At Perrault Farms in Yakima County, a partnership with local growers Carpenter Ranches and Loftus Ranches led to the creation of Select Botanicals Group, a breeding management group responsible for popular varieties including Mosaic, Citra and Equinox.
“Through these efforts now we’ve created a sustainable situation where it makes sense to reinvest,” says Jason Perrault of Perrault Farms. “After four generations ... now we’re at a business model where we can continue to reinvest and evolve with a vibrant brewing industry. As my dad says, these facilities need to get us through the next four generations.”
So what’s changed? On the growing side, farming technologies have led to a greater knowledge of when crops need to be harvested. This window can be as short as days to collect a crop at peak harvest. Other crops are intentionally left on the bine longer due to the preferences of breweries. “Lagunitas likes them dank, so we keep them on the bine a bit longer,” says Brad Carpenter of Carpenter Ranches.
Technology has particularly improved different picking and sorting methods. Hops grow high in the sky on bines that can stretch 20-30 feet into the air, hanging on rope lines connected by posts to create a massive crop-sized grid. The tricky part is getting them off efficiently and without yield loss. Hops were originally harvested by hand by families and helpful neighbors. Picking technology has come a long way, but varies from farm to farm.
At a Hopsteiner field in the South of the Yakima Valley, Silva and McIlhenney visit a crop during a picking of Chinook. A tractor outfitted with cutters separates the bottoms from the ground, followed by a huge red devious-looking machine called a combine that travels along the row, cutting from the top and stacking bines on a truck that trails closely behind. “I find it fascinating to see where our raw materials come from to make beer,” says Silva, walking the fields. The concept of farm to pint-glass ingredients is a hard topic to ignore. “We put those hops that just came out of the field, going through kilns and the baling process, directly in our beer,” says Silva. “It doesn’t go through some sort of sterilization process; that product ends up in our finished beer.”
Cut, Sort, Kiln, Bale, Repeat
Cutting down on picking times and labor is at the forefront of every grower’s mind. Carpenter Ranches has developed a unique method to increase efficiency. “We found out about eight years ago that hanging bines in a conventional way was hard on backs, hard on labor,” says Carpenter. “We developed what we call a ‘de-biner,’ when you leave the bine out in the field that’s been stripped and therefore when you’re bringing hops into the cleaning area you have less bine material to deal with.” Essentially, Carpenter has created a method by which bines are cut down by machete and shot through a tube too small for the hops. The green gold is collected in the field and brought back for cleaning while bare bines remain on the land to fertilize next year’s crop.
Various methods exist for sorting and cleaning as well. During Silva and McIlhenney’s trip, they encounter a wide range of facilities, some made of wood, and timeworn machinery seems to shake the entire building as sorters separate twigs, leaves and other compost materials from hops. In others, like at Perrault Farms for example, a massive new facility of shiny bright steel provides an immediate contrast. “We call that place Hop Disneyland,” says Carpenter.
Once sorted, hops are transferred by conveyor belt to large open kilns where they are dried for six to eight hours. In football-field-sized pens on the second floor of an adjacent building, turbo fans blow hot air upward from the first floor until the hops reach an optimal temperature. This too is being upgraded and automated. At Loftus Farms, a computer system has been developed to maximize efficiency and increase quality, preventing burnt hops that could result in reduced quality.
After kilning, hops are left to cool in piles for roughly 24 hours and sent to be baled in large industrial baling machines turning out 200-pound bales at a rate of 18-20 per hour. Quality control and state certifications and inspections are carried out at this point. Most hops will go on to be pelletized and stored in warehouses at 23 degrees F, from where they are later shipped to breweries around the world.
The process, including picking, sorting, kilning and baling, lasts a mere month. The size of it all, the house-sized piles of hops, the expansive acreage, is hard to grasp. Add in frequent visits from the world’s best brewers and you have 11 months of preparation for roughly 30 days of controlled chaos. But even within the madness, the value of brewer visits is not lost on farmers. “I don’t want to go back to 10-15 years ago when no one gave a shit,” says Jason Perrault. “We have people who care about what we’re producing; they want to have a stake in how it’s done and what’s behind it. A lot of the improvements done around here are a direct result of having contact with brewers. Whether it be food safety or the varieties we grow, that’s all based on direct contact and these visits.”
“It took 86 years to go from nine to 1,000 acres,” says Pat Smith of Loftus Ranches. “In four years we’re going from 1,000 to 2,000.” Growers point to a demand for flavorful, hop-driven beers for the ability to reinvest in their own facilities now. “There’s excitement there that may not have been there before,” says Brad Carpenter, who sees the value of aroma-driven hops extending from brewers down to consumers. “You see your product and see someone excited about Citra, and that resonates with me. I see that and I think, ‘Wow, we’re developing stuff out here that consumers really enjoy.’ It’s helped our family to be able to have investment in our next generation. Instead of riding waves of ups and downs, we can have sustained growth, and that’s exciting to see.”
Another recently sustainable endeavor is the breeding of new hop varieties. At Perrault Farms, Jason Perrault ushers Silva and McIlhenney into an old Land Rover. Dogs run alongside the vehicle in a dusty field as Perrault drives the brewers to an experimental hop field. The bines are currently named only by number as the brewers enthusiastically search through, picking from bines and examining the various shapes and aromas right in the field. “This is one of the big highlights of this whole trip,” says McIlhenney.
Hops can take 10 to 12 years to develop before they’re marketed to breweries. Perrault, as part of Select Botanical Group, points out how rare a new sustaining varietal can be. “Probably a hundredth of a percent make it to some level of production,” he explains. “We start with 20-50,000 seedlings on any given year, and we whittle 80-90 percent of that population down in the first year, a concept we call ‘fail fast.’ We watch them for three years and we might select 1 percent of that population and watch those for three years more. At that point we’re lucky if something gets taken to that next level, because that’s a big commitment.”
Bringing in brewers to fields like these helps growers like Perrault figure out what’s worth keeping and what’s not. “I’ve studied hops a long time. Being able to see how they develop them and put input into that, I think, is really cool,” says McIlhenney.
The Gravity of it All
The next morning Silva and McIlhenney travel to distributor Yakima Chief-Hopunion. They’re about to make a Simcoe selection that will account for 20 percent of Green Flash’s hops for next year, or about 50,000 pounds. With a critical selection on their minds, Silva reflects on the importance of the entire pilgrimage. It does, after all, come down to the beer. He says that the selections they make now will translate directly as primary flavor sources to consumers, highlighting the gravity of their decisions. “Because our beers are designed around particular hop varieties, they are designed to be hop-flavored beers,” says Silva. “When you taste it, you taste the hops. They’re not just there to be a balancing act or bitterness addition.” McIlhenney chimes in as well. “Hops are a bigger part of the beer than in previous history,” he says. “IPAs were never this popular or made this way. It carries a lot of weight of importance in the beer we’re making.”
As they enter an old, dark wooden room that’s been used for decades by Yakima Chief, six samples of fresh Simcoe are poured carefully on a contrastingly new table. Spotlighting illuminates the ocean-blue table and neon green hops, but not much else. Silva and McIlhenney’s hands reach into the light as they begin their examination, going through the meticulous motions that now seem a familiar custom. A sales representative stands quietly in the darkened corner, noting their likes and dislikes.
As in every selection, Silva prefers a blind examination, unaware of the origins of each cut. The essential green buds before him could be the result of four generations of hard work and innovation from the Perrault family, or perhaps an outcome of new kilning techniques by the Smith’s at Loftus Ranches. Their source could stretch from Oregon, Idaho, or a mile down the road in the heart of Yakima. Regardless of the variables, it’s thanks to the efforts of growers throughout the region that Silva is given any choice at all. That choice represents a longstanding symbiosis between brewers and growers, and the American beer drinker as well. Our changing palates have changed lives, and as our taste buds continue to evolve, growers in the field will ultimately take notice.
About the Author
Nicholas Gingold (@CABrewMasters) is a Los Angeles-based photographer and beer journalist. His 2014 book California BrewMasters features profiles and portraits of the more than 45 Golden State brewers. Visit www.CABrewMasters.com for more.
About All About Beer Magazine
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