Okay, beer lovers – we all have our favorite styles, from lagers and dunkels to pale ales and stouts, but have you ever considered how your beer is made?
My husband and I will pick up a 12-pack on our way to our cabin or the river, drink it, recycle it, and move on. We don’t go to bars often – there aren’t too many in our rural part of Yakima, Washington anyway – and I’ve never visited a brewery with the intent to learn about beer’s ingredients. Just sampling for me!
I’m not a huge beer fan – I really have to be in the mood for it. But I do love a cold Corona when it’s hot outside and I can’t turn down a Coors Light with a splash of V8 in it. But despite my personal tastes, Yakima has a lively beer culture and I was interested in finding out more about it.
First off, the Yakima Valley contains about 75% of the total United States hop acreage, and most hop farms in Washington are third- or fourth-generation family operations.
I’ve always known hops and beer go hand in hand, but I couldn’t have told you much more than that. So I started with some research to find out the basics.
Hops give beer its flavor or, as those in the industry like to say, its “bittering and aroma” qualities. There are hundreds of hop varieties grown around the world, each with unique characteristics that give brewers enormous creative potential within the industry.
Hop plants are climbing vines, usually planted in long rows supported by a trellis system. The fields are an amazing sight just before harvest! The part of the plant used in brewing beer is the flower – the beer’s flavor and aroma depend on exactly when and how the hop flower is used.
This was all so fascinating, so to learn more I reached out to Taylor Swofford, who works for a local company called Hops Direct, LLC, the merchant name of Puterbaugh Farms. This family-owned farm is located in Mabton, Washington, in the Yakima Valley, where the Puterbaugh family has been growing hops since 1932.
For the Puterbaughs, it all started when the family brought rhizomes (underground hop stems) back from the east coast when they heard of Yakima’s fertile soil and ideal hop-growing climate.
The Yakima Valley really is the ideal location for growing hops, Taylor explained. It receives just the right amount of sunlight and has a desert soil that’s high in nitrogen and slightly sandy, which helps to prevent over-watering. And the water itself is never an issue here – Yakima has access to plentiful reservoirs filled from mountain snow melt, canals and well water.
Puterbaugh Farms grows 19 different varieties of hops and have a pretty great story about how one of their varieties came to be:
About 5 years ago, Stacy Puterbaugh spotted a hop vine growing on its own up the side of a machine. He left it alone for a full year, but it still managed to thrive, producing strange, strawberry-scented cones. They tested a sample and discovered that it was a cross between two hop varieties not grown anywhere on the farm – one of them was only grown in Japan! They named the new variety Belma™ and transplanted it into their fields, and it’s been a big hit with breweries across the country.
I learned that once a field is in place, hops will have six seasons: winter, early spring, late spring, summer, hop harvest, and fall. The farm has about 40 people on their crew year round, but during hop harvest they have about 150.
According to Taylor, harvest season is the most exhausting time of year, but the farm has an amazing crew full of energy and passion for their work. They’re like one big family at the farm, keeping each other upbeat and working hard. A lot of the farm’s customers and visitors come to the farm during harvest time to watch the process and bask in the smell of hop country.
The harvested plants are loaded onto a truck and transported to a separate area where crew members hang each vine by hand on a clip that carries them up to an immense picking machine. Inside, each vine is stripped and then sorted through a series of belts until just the hop cones come tumbling out.
The hop cones gently rumble along conveyer belts before dropping into a sturdy brick kiln. After the cones are heated, they’re dumped onto the kiln floor to cool and finish drying. This process takes roughly 10 – 12 hours, depending on the variety.
Finally, the dried hop cones are funneled into a chute and compressed into bales. The bales are stored in the farm’s cold storage year-round and the “hop waste/mulch” (everything that isn’t a hop cone) is put back into the hop yards to add nutrients to the soil for the next crop.
So the next time you’re enjoying a brew, take a moment to toast the vine that gives your beer its distinct flavor. While you’re at it, toast the crew that grew and processed that vine – they certainly deserve a nice cold one too.