hops

The Audacity of Hops

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THE AUDACITY OF HOPS
story and photo by Anna Roth

It’s an alcoholic beverage, lovingly crafted by lifetime artisans, from the fruit of a vine grown in Eastern Washington. No two batches are the same. Its taste and scent aroma are wholly dependent on the conditions where the vine was grown—the soil, the weather, the grower’s care; in short, the terroir.

Thinking wine? Think again. We’re talking about beer here.

 

There’s more similarity between the two beverages than meets the eye. Everyone’s familiar with wine grapes’ mystique, but few realize that hops have the same temperamental characteristics. Hops are the flower, or cone, of a perennial vine that can grow up to 25 feet tall in the right conditions–a moist spring, followed by a long, dry summer. Yakima Valley happens to have such a climate, and so Washington state produces nearly 75 percent of the country’s hops. There’s just one problem: the hops industry is in trouble.

Last year’s hops shortage was picked up by national media, but most stories skipped the origins: In the mid-90s, a new hybrid hop was created that produced double the cones of a regular vine. As a result, the market was glutted for more than a decade. By the time the surplus finally ran out, many farms had gone out of business or severely reduced their acreage, and brewers who hadn’t contracted in advance with farmers found themselves paying astronomic prices for an ingredient that had once been cheap and plentiful.

In response, Washington increased its acreage by 25 percent in the past year and many in the business believe the worst of the crisis is over–but not without doing major, possibly irreparable damage to the infrastructure. And not without exposing the vulnerabilities in the relationship between the grower and brewer.

In a perfect world, their relationship is symbiotic. Beer gets its flavor from hops, but there are dozens of strains, so a brewer will select a particular hops cocktail to make his beer taste the way he wants. But a farmer needs financial commitment before he grows the hops the brewer needs. The deal’s done through a middleman, and it’s called contracting.

 

But contracting is a gamble. Hops are easily susceptible to disease (which is why you don’t see organic varieties very often), and harvests fluctuate, so a precise yield is never certain. Moreover, the plant takes up to three years after planting to reach full potential. If a brewer pays up front, he has no real guarantee that the hops will be available when he needs them, or if he paid the right price.

“If the harvest comes in a little heavy and then the prices dip because there’s more supply than demand, then maybe you contracted for a higher price than you absolutely need to pay,” explains Doug Hindman, at Elliott Bay Brewing. “But in a year like this last one, you avoided the volatility of the market.”

Hindman’s been head brewer for 11 years, and has been contracting with a broker for six. He’s more eco-savvy than most–his beers recently became one of the first in the state to get USDA Organic certification—and he’s worked hard to build relationships with growers of his favorite hops, like Darren Gamache in Yakima.

Hovering around 200 acres, the Gamache family’s hops acreage is fairly average, but their proprietary strain has put them on the map. Darren found vgxp01, more appealingly known as Amarillo, growing wild in a field one day. “We thought, ‘that’s a different looking hop plant.’ And so we smelled the cones and we thought, ‘a beer should taste like this.’ And the rest is history,” he chuckles.

 

Amarillos are aromatic hops, added to the beer’s wort—a sweet mixture of malt and water—in the last few minutes of boiling (as opposed to alpha, or bitter hops, which are boiled the whole time to counteract the malt’s sweetness). Its citrus overtones make it popular with brewers like Hindman, who uses it in his IPAs and summer seasonal beers.

But aromatic hops yield about one-third the cones of bittering hops, making them a less popular option for farmers who need to make a living. Hindman is afraid that boutique strains like Amarillo might disappear in the coming years, leaving brewers with a handful of homogenous options.

“I think a lot of small brewers are just taking it for granted that you can pick up the phone and order any of 25 different varieties and make a beer that becomes your flagship,” he says. “With a few crop failures, those acres might just go away. People get all worked up about the price, but the subtleties in the equation are just as volatile. We’re banking on guys like Darren who continue to grow the varieties that allow us to do unique things.”

 

For his part, Gamache grows 9 or 10 varieties of hops, but some of them only span five acres or so—not enough for commercial purposes, but enough to keep the strain alive. Unfortunately, Gamache is a rare breed. At 34, he’s definitely on the younger side of the age spectrum of farming. And as most of the Yakima Valley hops farmers near retirement, the decades of unprofitibility and lure of government subsidies for corn-growing have left children reluctant to follow in their footsteps.

Still, Gamache, the “only one out of 16 first cousins” that stuck around, keeps a rosy outlook.

“I think there is a trend toward consolidation, but I also think that there’s a lot of us who enjoy a lot of different styles of beer,” he says. “I think that aspect of the hops business will probably keep small, interesting varieties around for craft guys to use for years to come.”

Eating and drinking are all in a day’s work for Anna Roth.

 

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