A lemon scent wafted through the air as workers harvested hops at a small farm at the mouth of Cowiche Canyon last week. Less than 24 hours later, that same aroma was steeping in a wildly popular seasonal beer bearing the canyon’s name at a Seattle brewery.
Fremont Brewing’s Cowiche Canyon Fresh Hop Ale is the result of the match between the brewery’s sustainability bent and an organic hops experiment launched in the canyon six years ago.
“You can see the beauty here,” said landowner Ron Britt of his 2-acre hop yard nestled up against the 5,000-acre Cowiche Canyon Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust that protects sagebrush covered hills, basalt cliffs, and creek habitat to the west of Yakima. “I felt we had to go organic because of the conservancy.”
Organic hops are rare — just 326 acres of the 43,633 acres or .7 percent of hops grown in the U.S. this year are organic. But Britt, an entomologist with decades of experience in pest-management for the tree fruit and hops industries, was looking for an experiment.
“We didn’t even know if hops would grow here,” Britt said of his site in the shady canyon.
But over the past six years he’s found that hops, which normally love warm sunshine, manage to thrive in the canyon where they get heat from the rocky canyon walls.
“We haven’t had to use fertilizer because the soil is so fertile here because of years of runoff from (Cowiche) creek,” Britt said.
Britt and his son Reed, who manages the farm in addition to working for Britt’s crop consulting firm, wanted to find a buyer before they invested in growing the first organic fields of several varieties of aroma hops developed by Yakima-based Select Botanicals Group.
“Fremont had just started six months or so before we planted, and they were really into sustainable agriculture, so we contacted them,” Reed Britt said.
Fremont, who already sourced its hops from Granger-based Carpenter Ranches, the Britts’ partners as they started their farm, jumped at the chance, said company co-founder Sara Nelson.
“Their mission fits right in line with our sustainability principles and it seemed like a perfect fit,” she said.
Fremont now contracts to buy all of the Britts’ hops, which are used mostly fresh, although some are more traditionally dried. The organic fields produce a yield comparable to conventionally grown varieties, Reed Britt said, so the farm produces a few thousand pounds in a good year.
Nelson said that limits the productions of the popular fresh hop ale, which will be about 140 barrels this year, Nelson said. It should be available at their Seattle brew house toward the end of this month and on tap at the Fresh Hop Ale Festival in Yakima on October 1.
“When we release the Cowiche Canyon (Fresh Hop Ale), we have to have strict limits or we sell out immediately,” Nelson said. “I don’t know if consumers can taste the organic, but what makes it so delicious is that it’s fresh hops — picked and within the kettle within 24 hours — and the hop blend from Carpenter Ranches, they are absolutely delicious.”
Fremont’s customers want environmentally friendly products, Nelson said, but brewing a beer that can meet organic standards is a challenge. That’s because not only do the hops and grains have to be grown organically, but the facilities that process them have to be certified organic as well, she said.
“If we really do want to spur organic hopes, we have to make sure we have the whole pipeline in place,” Nelson said. “We use organic grains and hops, but it’s because of these interstitial (processing) issues, we have not gone for the whole certification.”
So far, there hasn’t been enough demand for the industry to invest in much organic-certified hop processing, which then makes switching to organic production a risk for most farmers, the Britts said.
But interest remains.
Several of the Yakima Valley’s major hop growers, including Carpenter Ranches, Perrault Farms, Roy Farms, and B.T. Loftus Ranches, got together with California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and a few others in 2009 to form the American Organic Hop Grower Association to raise awareness about organic hops and fund research.
The group started to advocate against the USDA’s National Organic Program’s rules, which exempted hops from the organic standard, allowing brewers to label beer organic even if they used conventional hops. That meant that organic hop growers couldn’t find buyers.
That rule was changed in 2013 but the demand for organic hops, though growing, is still small, according to the Association’s 2015 report.
Nelson said that Fremont is exploring options to get Cowiche Canyon Ale certified. For now, it’s certified as a Salmon-Safe beer, which recognizes that the ingredients are grown on farms that prevent pesticide runoff and take other steps to protects waterways like Cowiche Creek, which runs alongside the Britts’ farm.
Growing without pesticides has its challenges, but Ron Britt said they use overhead sprinklers to cool the plants and reduce the pressure from pests such as mites and aphids.
“We’ve learned a lot from this,” he said. “It’s been a good deal for our family and the Carpenter family, to build a good relationship with the conservancy and the brewers.”
Cowiche Canyon is the ideal spot for his organic experiment, Ron Britt said. That’s because it’s far from other hop fields that attract pests, and the surrounding native vegetation supports a wide variety of predator insects like ladybugs and lacy wings.
“We have much higher rates of ladybugs and lacy wings than other farms,” Britt said. “We generally don’t have to do a lot for pest control.”
While the canyon supports the hops, the hops also give back to the canyon — Fremont donates a portion of the proceeds from its Cowiche Canyon Ale to the conservancy every year, Nelson said.
•Kate Prengaman can be reached at 509-577-7674 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @kprengaman