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Harvest of hops: Five things you probably don't know about hops...and one you do

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YAKIMA, Wash. -- Hop growers throughout the Yakima Valley started harvesting in the last week and are expected to continue through the end of September.

Hops — a flavoring and stabilizing agent in beer — are used by a variety of brewers from small mom-and-pop craft breweries to multinational beer corporations such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, which brews brands such as Budweiser and Stella Artois. The Yakima Valley grows well above the supermajority of hops in the U.S. In other words: Beer lovers have area growers to thank for supplying a key ingredient in their favorite beers.

Here are a few facts to know about this year’s harvest:

• U.S. hop growers are expected to harvest 97.6 million pounds of hops this year, according to an August estimate from the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s a 12 percent increase from the 87.1 million pounds harvested in 2016.

• About 72 million pounds of hops — 74 percent of all U.S. hops grown — will come from hop fields in the Yakima Valley, according to estimates. That’s a 10 percent increase from the 65.4 million pounds of hops harvested in the Yakima Valley — the sole region for hops in Washington state — in 2016.

• More than 50 varieties of hops, including those developed by hop growers, suppliers and breeders, were planted in the Yakima Valley in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Varieties are split into two groups: Alpha or bittering hops are added at the start of the boiling process in beer making and provide bitterness to offset a beer’s sweetness. Aroma, or flavoring hops, are added later in the boiling process to enhance the flavor and bouquet of a beer.

• The U.S. surpassed former — and longtime — leader Germany as the top hop grower in 2015 and has held the title since. In 2016, the U.S. had about 52,980 acres of hops, well above the 45,958 acres in Germany, according to Hop Growers of America statistics. Despite small rodent damage to some of the hop bines planted this year, total hop acreage in the U.S. is still expected to increase to 54,135 acres in 2017, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.

• Mexican beers, such as Corona and Modelo Especial, have a sizable presence in U.S. grocery stores and restaurants. And chances are you — or someone you know — have tried the Newcastle Brown Ale, a British beer. So, it’s probably not a surprise that the United Kingdom and Mexico are the two largest importers of U.S. — and Yakima Valley — hops. According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service — Global Agricultural Trade System, The United Kingdom imported 10.7 million pounds of hops from September 2015 to August 2016, making it the top importer of hops. Mexico imported 8 million pounds of hops during the same period, putting it easily in the No. 2 spot. But a year earlier, the rankings were reversed, with Mexico holding the top spot.

• The hop harvest in the Yakima Valley has become a monthlong gathering of the country’s beer industry. Throughout September, brewery owners from across the country will visit the Yakima Valley to work with growers and suppliers to secure hop supply for years in advance — and also to enjoy a few local brews, of course. Many will stick around on Sept. 30 for the annual Fresh Hop Ale Festival, where more than 50 brewers will serve beer made with fresh-picked hops.

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