​A Trip to Hop Mecca by John Palmer

John Palmer author of 'How to Brew' writes about his trip to HopUnion in Yakima, Washington for the annual Hop and Brew School.

As a homebrewer, author (How To Brew), and brewing scientist, I am a pretty lucky guy. There are not many people who, when asked what they do for a living, must confess, “I travel the world, talk about brewing with other brewers, and drink beer.” It is indeed a rough life, traveling a couple times a month, and trying to explain to my family at every opportunity how interesting the world of beer is!

This past month I travelled to HopUnion in Yakima, Washington, for their annual Hop and Brew School. This is the Mecca for many brewers, the source of the majority of the hops used in the American craft beer industry. Come to think of it, Yakima is the source for most of the world craft beer industry as well. You can routinely find American Cascade, Citra, and Simcoe hops in use worldwide, and they are all grown here in the US. On the one hand, I am proud that American beer styles are gaining acceptance and even acclaim in the traditional brewing centers around the world. On the other hand, I am disappointed to travel to London or Brussels and taste American hop character in what I had hoped to be a traditional ESB or Pale Ale. But I suppose I can’t insist on progress and prosperity for some and wish for others to be frozen in time.

Getting back to Yakima, the Hop and Brew School is a unique opportunity for professional brewers and home brewers to gather with their peers and learn more about the business of growing, inspecting, and packaging hops for market. The school is held annually for two days during the peak of harvest, which is insane for all the good folks on the farms and at the processing facilities, but it is wonderful for those of us that get to attend. As you fly toward Yakima, the coastal forests disappear behind the mountains and arid grasslands appear. And then before you appears a small verdant valley. As you get closer you can see postage stamp squares of bright green. These are the hop fields, although the nearly 900 square miles of irrigated farmland is shared by apples, pears and many other agricultural products.

At first glance it doesn’t seem like this area could produce the billions of hop cones necessary to make everyone’s beer, but each farm is about 450 acres, and there are lots of them. Once you are on a farm and among the bines, looking at clusters of hundreds of cones, it seems more real, even if the sight, sound, and smell of so many hop bines swaying gently in the breeze is surreal. A modified haymower drives up and down the rows cutting the bines along the ground, and then another tractor comes along and cuts the bines at the overhead wires. The cut bines are passed back by a couple of farmhands to a following truck that switches out as it filled. The full trucks deliver the bines to the processing facilities, where the bines are loaded into picking machines that separate the cones from most of the leaves and stems. If you get the chance, look up Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs visit to Yakima, as it will give you a great view of the entire process. From the picker, the hops are conveyed to the kilning rooms where they are dried to about 9% moisture by weight. From there, the hops are heaped in mounds in the baling room, patiently waiting their turn to be squashed into 200 pound bales.

The bales need to be stored cold to avoid the risk of spontaneous combustion due to the high concentration of oils. The bales are sampled and graded for color (freshness), resin, shatter (cone integrity), and aroma. These evaluations are on a scale of 1-5 and serve as quick quality benchmarks for the wholesalers and buyers. Craft brewers meet with the wholesalers and work with them to select bales based on these benchmarks for further evaluation. The craft brewer will typically evaluate several different lots of the same hop variety to select the one(s) that seem most suitable to his or her needs for the year.

In addition to learning about hop processing, evaluation, and selection, Hopunion had several speakers for the school (including myself) that gave us additional insight into such topics as hop breeding, recipe substitution and bitterness. I am looking forward to attending again next year.

Look for another blog post from me next week about the Northern California Homebrew Festival.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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