If you spend much time in the bars and pubs in downtown Yakima during September, you probably notice a change from other months. It’s noisier, and places tend to be filled with unfamiliar faces. Those new folks often represent your favorite breweries from across the country, and they are here for one thing: hop selection.
As most Yakima Valley residents know, we grow a lot of hops around here. Whatever amount you think we grow, it’s too small. Too small by 1,000, at least. The Yakima Valley grows approximately 75 percent of the hops in the United States. Think of every bar you’ve ever been to, every sporting event you’ve attended, every grocery store; and think about the millions of bottles and cans and kegs of beer you’ve seen. The bines (technical term for hop vines) in our Valley helped produce nearly three out of four of those — for your entire life.
But before that beer is made, it’s likely that a brewing team traveled to Yakima to select the hops they will use. The intriguing part is this isn’t about choosing hops just harvested to use for the next 12 months. They are actually using the current samples to project what will be available for use the following year. That’s not an easy task.
Hop selection is an evaluation. It isn’t about what “the best hop” is, because with thousands of different beers to choose from with varied flavor profiles, that really doesn’t exist. The perfect hop is what’s the right match for your particular beer or lineup.
Some hops will have a profile that leans more towards citrus and grass or melon, pine, perfume, even grapefruit. They can be a combination of any of the above. And what works for Brewery A in Oregon may be entirely different than what Brewery B in Florida is looking for. That’s where the selection becomes a crucial component of your plans for the future.
As beer drinkers, we come to expect the same flavor any and every time we revisit an offering. If it doesn’t, we might frown on the label. This isn’t wine evolving and changing. It’s familiar like an old friend or your favorite sneakers.
With that being the case, selection time in September requires you to bring your “A” game. You need to make sure that you find the hops that will fit with what you plan to produce next year.
One of the primary ways of selecting hops is using a brewer’s cut. The hop cones are taken from a bale in a 1-2 cup size and trimmed or chopped into smaller pieces. That allows the sampler to explore the color, moisture content and lupulin glands, among other necessary determining factors. Getting deep inside the cone allows for great aroma testing as well. This part of the job tends to be vastly more sensory-driven than scientific.
I spoke with Zach Turner, co-owner and head brewer of Single Hill Brewing in Yakima, about the selection process. As a former director of quality for Yakima Chief Hops, he is all too familiar with the evaluation. He said selection is a great quality control tool for the brewer.
When asked if there is a right or wrong way to select, he said, “Many evaluate blind. That way you can choose the hops that are right for you. Then you use analytics for tie-breakers after the fact.”
Adam McClure, head brewer for Everybody’s Brewing in White Salmon, told me about their selection process. They have five core beers that are always in their lineup, but 22 taps in their brewpub for an ever-changing array of seasonal or experimental brews. He said the hops they use most often include Citra, Simcoe, Mosaic, Ekuanot, Cascade, Centennial and Chinook. Due to the fact that harvest is usually five weeks long, and some varieties are picked early while others are late in the season, they can’t sample them all.
“We are selecting for different profiles that stay close to what we use in our brands” McClure said, “We are looking for consistency as much as quality.”
While sampling, do they think about new beers they might produce? “We never lose sight of the future, but selection is for our core beers,” McClure said.
Larger brewers will work with a couple of main suppliers or brokers who might have three to four varieties to select from and many lots to sample from each. That can mean upwards of 16 samples from each supplier, which can lead to scent fatigue. Some may stagger their travel with different team members to get a better idea of the entire lineup.
It is up to each brewery to determine their best course of action. If you come too early in the season, you won’t get to evaluate all of them. Come too late, and some lots you were looking for are no longer available. McClure said the Everybody’s Brewing team might make two to three trips this year to cover all their hops.
Graham Ollard represents the other side of the business — the brokers. He said breweries buying 5,000 pounds or more of a specific variety are where you usually see travel for selection. But that can vary, as there are only so many days — or hours in a day — to evaluate hops.
“We see approximately five breweries per day, 50 or more over the course of the season,” Ollard said at Hollingbery and Son, in the heart of downtown Yakima. Some breweries send teams that compare notes about the samples.
As one of Washington’s newest breweries making approximately 1,000 barrels of beer this year, Single Hill is too small to warrant a coveted evaluation slot. That’s alright with Turner though.
“Hop selection is the biggest beer fest ever, but no one really knows about it. It’s a time for camaraderie, not competition.” Turner said his wife has even dubbed the time this group shares as “hop-nobbing.”
That may be true, and my new favorite term for the season, but I know that for Turner and all participants, it’s far more than that. It offers a chance to commiserate, to laugh or frown about trends or methods. And it all happens during the absolute busiest time of the year for the industry.
So, the next time you see this group toasting in your favorite local watering hole, you’ll understand their passion for that beer — and for the hops that made it happen.