The Yakima Valley is one of the most important hop growing regions in the world, and the craft beer industry wouldn’t be what it is today without our Valley’s hop growers. Though millions of people enjoy the beer that our hops help produce, most people don’t know the first thing about hops and how they are used to create that beer. Check out our FAQ that will help you get a better understanding of how hops are grown, harvested and processed, and how they are used in the beer brewing process.
SO WHAT IS A HOP?
Humulus Lupulus (hops) are the flowering cones of a perennial climbing vine (called bines) that is primarily used in the beer brewing process. Hops have been used in brewing since the early days to ward off spoilage from wild bacteria, and to bring balance to the sweetness of malts. Hops also help with head retention (the foam on your beer), act as a natural filtering agent, and impart unique flavors and aromas, including (but certainly not limited to!) the bitterness in beer.
WHY ARE SO MANY HOPS GROWN IN THE YAKIMA VALLEY?
The Yakima Valley has proven to have the ideal combination of the right climate, day length, soil and access to irrigation systems for hop growing, which is why over 75% of our nation’s hops are grown here.
WHAT PART OF THE HOP IS DESIRABLE TO BREWERS?
The female hop cone, which forms on the bine in late summer, contains various oils and alpha acids that are essential for the flavor and aroma in beer, especially the hop-forward beers such as IPA’s. Peel open a fully-formed hop cone and you can check out the sticky yellow lupulin glands inside, the active ingredient in hops that give each variety its own flavor and characteristic.
WHEN ARE HOPS HARVESTED?
Around the Yakima Valley, the annual hop harvest generally starts towards the end of August and lasts throughout most of September. Most picking facilities run 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week, for close to 30 days.
DO HOPS HAVE TO BE REPLANTED EACH SEASON?
No, hops are a perennial climbing vine that remains dormant underground throughout the fall and winter. The plant begins to grow from the ground each spring as the weather warms.
ARE HOP CONES HANDPICKED FROM EACH HOP BINE?
Not anymore! The hop bines are first cut close to the ground by a tractor called a bottom cutter. Then a hop truck is push
ed though the row by a tractor called a top cutter, which cuts the top of the bine from the trellis. The harvested bine is transported back to the picking machine in the back of the hop truck.
SO NOW THE BINE IS IN THE BACK OF A TRUCK. THEN WHAT?
Each bine is hand-loaded (upside-down) into the picking machine. Many of the local picking machines have been around since the 1950’s, and are still going strong!
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE PICKING MACHINE?
After the plant material is stripped from the bine, a series of belts and sorting mechanisms separate the hop cones from the other plant material. A conveyor belt then transports the cones from the picking machine over to the kiln.
A KILN, YOU MEAN LIKE AN OVEN?
Yes. At harvest time, hops contain roughly 75% moisture. If stored with that amount of moisture throughout the year, they would spoil. Hops are dried in a hop kiln to an ideal moisture content of about 9-10%, allowing them to be stored and used in brewing throughout the year.
HOW ARE HOPS PACKAGED WHEN THEY LEAVE THE FARM?
After the hops are dry and cool, they are compressed into 200 pound, burlap-wrapped bales. Truckloads of bales are delivered to warehouses at hop processing companies around the Yakima Valley, where they will be packed into smaller bales of raw hops, or processed into pellet and extract form. These hop processing companies act as the middle-man between the farmer and brewer. Once the hops have been processed and repackaged, they are shipped to breweries all around the world, ready to be made into delicious beers of all kinds!
SO WHAT DOES THE BREWER DO ONCE THEY GET THE HOPS?
It depends on the type of beer they are making, but generally, hops are boiled with a malt sugar solution (called wort), and then yeast is added to begin fermentation. The hops’ bitterness counteracts the malt’s natural sweetness, creating a nice balance of flavors. Adjusting the amount of hops versus the amount of malt will give you different types of beer. Obviously a lot more work goes into brewing your favorite beer, but that is the basics.
So the next time you’re sipping on a delicious, hop-heavy IPA, you can tell your friends you know exactly where those hops came from, and how it went from a plant to a beer! And if you really want to experience Yakima Valley hops at their freshest, makes plans to come to Yakima for the Fresh Hop Ale Festival, the first weekend in October every year. All the beers at the event have to be brewed with Yakima Valley hops that went from the bine to the beer within 24 hours. You’ve never tasted beer so fresh!
Thanks to Bale Breaker Brewing for the beautiful photos!