A HOP LOVE STORY FROM HEAD BREWER BRANDEN...
Original Post: October 7, 2015
In September, I had the opportunity to go to Yakima, WA for the first time to take part in hop harvesting, processing, and ultimately hop selection. To say the trip was transformational would be a giant understatement. The chance to see a valley that is responsible for 75% of the hops grown in this country was an incredible treat; and to try and wrap my head around the future of this industry in light of the recent merges, acquisitions, and sell-outs while standing in a field rubbing hop cones and chatting with a 4th generation hop farmer was a big challenge. It was in that moment that I sensed a giant disconnect between how Black Shirt sees its future and how many breweries in this country see theirs. The idea of growth for growth's sake has never sat well with me. After the trip, and seeing the industry from the raw materials side, it cemented my thoughts about that very subject. It also cemented the fact that the beer industry has a long way to go in terms of educating our guests, connecting the brewers and the beer drinkers to the land, and developing a deeper connection to beer than a simple slug of suds and an Untappd check in.
The drive from Seattle to Yakima is spectacular. Leaving the bustling city and entering into the giant forest and mountains that stand in the distance takes only a few short minutes. The good thing is that I was able to get KEXP (one of the best radio stations in the country) on my rental car stereo clearly until the backside of Snoqualmie Pass. I stopped off at Snoqualmie Falls on my way, which is an incredibly powerful waterfall near the summit of the pass, and a must-see for anyone traveling through the area.
On the other side of the pass, the landscape changes from the thick, damp forest into one of the driest prairie deserts I think I have ever seen. It was a big surprise to me, and I remember thinking "how the hell did they determine this area would be good for hops?" Upon arrival to town, I spied some vast acreage of what I assumed were hops and set off to go see some bines. Interestingly enough, I drove around for 3 hours in endless apple orchards and through the small, sleepy town of Yakima before even seeing the word "hop" on anything, let alone a bine, hop yard, or big processing plant. If I didn't know this was the center of the hop universe, I'd never believe it.
Finally, I gave up on my instinctual hop hunt and used Google to direct me to the goods. As it turns out, the interstate and the mighty Yakima river, pretty much separates town and the endless apples from the over 30,000 acres of hops and major hop processing plants to the east. I arrived on the back end of harvest, with a lot of acreage already done and a majority of hops already processed, though I still found a lot on the bine and crews working around the clock to get them down.
In the morning, I sip a little coffee, eat a quick breakfast, take part in an introductory meeting, and then I'm off to Yakima Chief Hopunion's headquarters to take part in the selection process. Before long, we are breaking open packaged hop cuts and are tearing apart cones, examining lupulin glands, smashing and rubbing hops in our hands to excite the oils in the hops and make the aromatics shine. It's interesting, same breed hop varieties harvested from different fields, at different times, and put through different processing techniques yield incredibly different aromatics. In hindsight, this seems obvious. Though, until I could actually see and smell the difference in person, like this, it didn't really make sense to me. A tomato is a tomato, right? Far from. Citra that had been harvested earlier and subjected to ever-so-slightly gentler processing seemed to yield more tropical fruit characters - bursting with mango, passionfruit, lychee, melon, and grapefruit; while the later harvested Citra seemed to be more dank with petrol, diesel, almost onion, and garlic notes. The fruit was still in there, but had been overwhelmed by these other more dominant overtones. The same held true for the other varieties we smelled (Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe, and Mosaic). As I've battled with hop differences in the past, this new revelation both relieved me a bit, and reinforced the importance of making the trip up here yearly to not only connect with the growers, but to have a bigger voice in the selection of the type of hops we are after here at Black Shirt.
After selection, we headed out to Loftus Ranches where 4th generation hop farmer Patrick Smith showed us around the fields, the new experimental varieties they are working on, the older varieties that are being pulled out due to their susceptibility, and the entire processing facility. It's world class. It's what happens only when your family has been doing it, and perfecting it, for generations.
There is a fury of activity inside the plant with tons of machinery removing cones from bines, separating hops from the discard, and moving them into the kilns where they are heated to remove moisture and enhance oil concentration. Trucks are lined up outside bursting with freshly cut hop bines filled with beautiful cones. The field hands are working as fast as they can, around the clock, to ensure that these hops are getting from the field to the bale as quickly as possible and in a way that best shows their full potential. It's exciting and crazy. I have to imagine it's dangerous as hell by looking at the machinery. It's back-breaking and can be a thankless job for so many. I'd personally like to thank each and everyone that has a part in the process of growing and harvesting these beautiful hops for us to use in our beer. Cheers to you all!
After a day of analyzing and selecting hops, touring the fields, getting to know the farmers, and seeing the plant, it was time to get a beer. Luckily for me, Loftus Ranches has built a brewery right in the middle of a field of Cascade hops called Bale Breaker Brewing Company, so a cold refreshing beer was just around the corner.
There are a lot of parallels that we draw between industries, music and beer for example. It's pretty obvious the deep connection and similarities that we draw between these two at Black Shirt. We brew in harmony with our surroundings, driven by rhythms and vibrations. One thing I've always admired about the wine industry, and thought beer had a long way to go with, is a deep connection to the vineyard. Every wine drinker knows that wine is made from grapes. They probably even know that Napa is the center of wine in North America, and perhaps they even know a thing or two about Bordeaux. However, most beer drinkers have no idea what hops look like, nor where they come from, even though IPA is quite easily the most popular beer style in America. It's part of our plight at Black Shirt to interest and educate our guests about the ingredients, the process, the care, the passion, and the love that go into our beers. Hopefully this story has helped you learn a bit about the agricultural aspect of beer, and the hard working and determined people it takes to make a spectacular IPA.
Thanks for reading!