When our latest episode took us to 47Hops, a hops merchant in the Yakima Valley, I had no idea what to expect. As much brewing as I have seen up close, all I had seen of hops was brewers using them. Yet they’ve been a key part of beer for centuries – even more important for many brewers of late, as supper hoppy west coast style beers have swept the nation. But how do they get to that beer? That was the mystery. And the cool thing about this job is, you’re always learning something.
First, geographical education. The state of Washington has a lot more climactic variety than I realized. I’ve always thought of the state in terms of Seattle – water, fish, rain (yeah, I know that’s an alleged misnomer, but what the heck), and coffee. Well, it turns out the Yakima Valley is great for hops because it’s a completely different climate - high desert. Just the right combination of factors for hops to thrive.
So how you mass-produce them. They’re vine clingers. All over the valley, you see row after row of hop vines growing toward the sky, wrapped around twine suspended from trestles. For years they had to be cut down by guys wielding machetes. But now, growers use top-cutters. Those are rotating blades attached to a rig atop a truck that drives down the paths between the rows and cuts the twine holding the vines. It’s pretty cool to see, though even this step forward in technology still feels old-time and still requires people to do the work. No robots here.
As for the cleaning and processing, we visited a place that's been processing hops for 60 years with incredible technology from way back when. It was amazing to stand on a balcony overlooking a huge room with hops bouncing off fans (which suck off much of the debris) and then rolling down slanted conveyer belts intended to allow the hops to fall backwards while the lighter leaves and stems are carried forward. And the structure of these room-sized machines is made of wood – it’s all that old. Which is a great reminder that, however innovative or automated the craft beer industry may get, at the heart of it all is a series of processes that have been conceptually unchanged for a very long time.
This was a very enjoyable and enlightening trip. And yes, we did brew while we were there, a unique hop-heavy Belgian Ale from Sound Brewery, which was also a very pleasant discovery.
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