It can be said, growing beer is a dirty job. Dirty Jobs, a show on the Discovery Channel, aired a 2017 segment featuring harvesting hops. The show visited a 4th generation hop farm operation in Yakima, Washington, during the September hops harvest. Hops and their derivatives are key components in making beer, and premium hops are essential in producing quality beer. Your average beer drinker probably does not think much more about hops except to recognize whether they like a particular aroma and/or taste profile in a beer.
From hundreds of varieties of hops, the selection of specific hops and how they are utilized in the brewing process is what separates a premium craft beer from a “slam ’em down” beer. Ultimately, the consumer votes with their dollars. Thus far, the majorities favor craft brewers because today’s beer consumers are big into all beers loaded with hop flavors and aromas; the “umami” in beer.
What can make the craft beer experience better is to understand a little about the people and processes that grow and process the hops. Mia Hoang’s writing in the Yakima Herald said it best, “People want to buy beer made by people they know even if tangentially.”
The hops industry has been a long journey to get where they are today. In reality, over the past 100 years, the industry has experienced significant advances in growing techniques and innovations in hop varieties and terroir considerations. We know beer has been around for about 12,000 years. By comparison, wine has existed for 9,000 years. Probably beer came first because grain was domesticated long before grapes. Hops in beer was an innovation that evolved around 736 in Germany. Before 736 beer had bitterness added through plants and flowers, some believe even dandelions. Today, some brewers still use alternatives such as Spruce tips to add bitterness to a beer.
The three functions of hops are to give beer balance by using the bitterness to offset the sweetness added from the grain. They also add aroma and complex flavors. Some go so far as to look to hops to add mouthfeel.
The world’s hops capital is Yakima Valley in Washington State, and the largest company in the world supplying premium hops to brewers is Yakima Chief Hops (YCH). YCH is a company owned by 15 hop growers. In 2019 YCH sold more than 27 million pounds of hops to brewers in 108 countries and the U.S.
Hops became a crop in the United States in 1629. This probably accounts for why New York State became a significant hop producer, initially the population was focused in the Northeast. However, in the convening three centuries, two concurrent events destroyed New York hops; prohibition and disease. By the early 1900s, California, Oregon, and Washington were well underway growing hops. In the 1880’s California did export some hops to Ireland for the Guinness Brewing company. Today no one can dispute the fact that Washington State survived prohibition and became a significant force in hop growing. Mostly because of terroir, extensive research, and development on new hop varietals that also targeted disease remediation.
The epicenter of all things hops is in Northwest: Washington-Yakima Valley, Oregon-Willamette Valley, and Idaho-Treasure Valley. However, the elephant in the room is Washington State. As noted above, Yakima Chief Hops (YCH) is a significant factor in driving hops awareness worldwide, through 15 owners and 37 allied growers. This is a company that adheres to the rigorous standards dictated by ISO 9001 product and processes quality certification and ISO 1401 environmental standards. Yakima Chief Hops is Certified Organic by the Washington Department of Agriculture and works with six major organic hops growers to sell their organic certified hops. Like most agriculture products, organic labeling matters.
The EU is also demanding imported agriculture products be organic with guaranteed quality production standards. Attention to quality certifications is relevant to YCH because of its worldwide reach. YCH has offices and a sales presence everywhere in the world.
The markets that Yakima Chief Hops (YCH) serves are not limited to large macro-breweries, they are also committed to the full range of brewers, even to homebrewers. The micro-brewery category does represent 51% of Yakima Chief’s total sales. Their sales were generated across eight distinct products, such as Whole Leaf, T-90 Pellets, Hop Blends, Aged Hops, Cryo Hops, and extracts.
According to Craft Brewing Business, there are about 70 varietals of hops produced. Each varietal sold by YCH is tested for quality during the growing season, which translates to the aroma, taste, alpha and beta acids, and oil content. YCH distributed hops are grown by 52 hop farms comprising 21,600 acres.
As reported by the USDA, in the U.S., there are approximately 59,000 acres of hops of which Washington and Oregon comprise 57,000 acres (21,600 represented by Yakima Chief Hops). About 90% of the hops used for brewing craft beer in the U.S. come from Yakima Chief Hops/Northwest. Germany is the second-largest producer of hops. In 2019 Germany produced 48,000 tons compared to U.S. production of 54,000 tons.
In addition to sales and marketing, Yakima Chief Hops is heavily involved in research and development of new hop varieties that allow YCH to be go-to suppliers in leading-edge aromas and flavors. YCH has a partnership alliance arrangement with Yakima Chief Ranches (YCR), together they work on projects ranging from growing practices, disease control, and new hop varieties. These efforts continue to ensure quality, improved yield and provide new hop varieties to respond to brewers and consumer demands.
Of the top 10 varietal hops sold by Yakima Chief Hops (YCH), four are varietals developed and brought to market by Yakima Chief Ranches (YCR). For the record, the top 10 hops produced in the Northwest are Citra, CTZ (Columbus, Tomahawk, Zeus), Cascade, Simcoe, Mosaic, Centennial, Amarillo, Chinook, Pahto and Summit. If you drink craft beer, you most assuredly will have tasted one of these top 10 sellers.
Research is not cheap; productive research is a function of time and money. It takes approximately eight years to bring a new varietal of hop to market, so the commitment to a new varietal is a gamble on market trends, which is why YCH maintains a strong relationship with YCR. “Yakima Chief Hops maintains a strong partnership with Yakima Chief Ranches, an organization that works to develop new hop varieties to give brewers more options when brewing beer,” says Cait Schut, Communications Manager-YCH. “The YCR breeding program is overseen by one of our (YCH) grower-owners, Jason Perrault. Jason and his team work year-round alongside the Hop Breeding Company to find sustainable new promising cultivars that display new brewing characteristics while being agronomically viable for our growers to produce.”
The Hop Breeding Company has had some significant successes. “The Hop Breeding Company parlayed the smash success of Citra with 2012’s Mosaic, a mélange of papaya, blueberry, tangerine, and peach. It sports an indelible flavor profile with incredible broad appeal. Mosaic has become massively popular. Its characteristics help define IPAs like Founders’ Mosaic Promise, Hop and Grain’s A Pale Mosaic, and Karl Strauss’s Mosaic Session IPA,” writes Joshua Bernstein in July 2020 Wine Enthusiast.
“Mosaic is a patented and exceedingly popular hop variety invented by Jason Perrault (an owner of YHC) through his hop breeding company Select Botanicals and the Hop Breeding Company (HBC). Jason Perrault and his company, HBC, have had a lot of success. He is also responsible for such hop varieties as Citra and Simcoe,” says Nick Carr in an article for Kegerator.com. This highly successful hop was about ten years in development.
The Yakima Chief Ranches (YCR) and related breeding programs have developed hop brands such as Simcoe®, Ahtanum®, Citra®, Mosaic®, Loral®, and Sabro®, which have become household names in the brewing industry and with discerning consumers.
In addition to working on new varietals, YCH is active in developing new hop product formats. One significant new product mentioned above came online in 2019 -CRYO HOPS®. “Components of the hop are preserved using a nitrogen-rich environment during the entire process, from the separation of lupulin to pelleting. This proprietary process displaces oxygen, increases quality and reducing the oxidation of the lupulin,” explains Cait Shut
Lupulin of whole-leaf hops contains resins and aromatic oils. It (CRYO HOPS) is designed to provide intense hop flavor and aroma, enabling brewers to efficiently dose large quantities of alpha acids and oils without introducing astringent flavors or vegetative material,” says Schut. That is a big deal to brewers.
Another relatively new product is Fresh Hops, a problematic product to deliver but a great product differentiator if a brewery produces high-quality beer. ‘Fresh’ is the operative word. Recently, YCH had an order for their Fresh Hops products from a South Korean brewer. For Whole Leaf Hops to be labeled as ‘fresh,’ hops must be introduced into the brewing process within 36 hours of harvesting the bine (the string hops grow on). YCH did deliver Fresh Hops to the brewer in S. Korea within that very narrow window. This allowed for a brewer to produce a unique “Fresh” labeled beer that was nearly impossible to achieve, especially considering S. Korea is 5,345 miles away. Adding to difficulty logistics was working with Federal and State Departments of Agriculture and getting proper documentation from S. Korea to import fresh American hops.
“Hops are the one ingredient in beer that makes for excitement. But it really gets exciting for the consumer when they understand the nuances hops brings to a crafted beer. There is science to growing premium hops, and some say there is magic in knowing how to use hops well,” says Schut.
Hops are grown by real farmers who have done it for many years, in good and bad times. There are real people at YCH that work with brewers to get them new hop aromas and flavors. It is the hop farmer who; must contend with daily unknows such as weather, final product pricing that was negotiated a year in advance, changing government regulations in domestic and international markets, competitive processes and products, labor availability/costs changes, pests and diseases in the field that must be addressed, cost of capital, and inflation, all of these and more are constant concerns.
As Cait Schut says, “More and more consumers are starting to realize the importance of hops and what they add to the enjoyment of beer. Brewers are constantly looking for innovations in hops that will differentiate their products.” Even some craft micro-beer producers are starting to prominently feature the variety of hops they utilized in the label design. It is not uncommon at a craft beer event to hear consumers engage brewers about the hops they used and why.
Hops selected by craft breweries are not a random choice. Annually, the hops industry sponsors events all over the world for world-class brewers who need to stay abreast of new hop varietals and get immediate feedback.
For the interested consumer, YCH offers Webinar events known as Virtual Harvest. This is a month-long online event available for free and is open to the public, bringing beer lovers, homebrewers, and international craft brewers together ‘virtually’ from all over the world. Here is the opportunity to sit in on seminars and lectures on all things hops. This event occurs every weekday in September and is conducted in various languages and time zones. More details are available at, www.virtualharvest.com.