*Post by Alexandra Nowell, Drake’s Lead Brewer*
It’s one of my favorite times of the year to be a brewer. The 2012 American harvest hops are beginning to arrive at Drake’s, and being the hop-forward brewery that we are, fresh hops and new varieties are exciting! This year, I got to travel to Yakima Valley in Central Washington to hand select all of our American grown hops and make sure we get exactly the aromas and flavors we want from each variety.
The Yakima Valley is the largest hop growing region in the United States, 2nd largest in the world, and home to the growers who are leading the innovation of new hop varieties. Imagine farm after farm, both large and small, with rows of hops as far as the eye can see, where during harvest time almost everywhere you go smells like hops. This is the Yakima Valley. Basically, I got to spend a few days running around like a kid in a candy store.
How hop selection works: You set up an appointment with your hop vendor (we buy our hops from multiple sources, so in this case, I had more than one appointment to attend). When you arrive at the selection location, you are led into a room with a large table. Then selection begins. For each hop variety, anywhere from 2 to 10 different brewers cuts of whole hops representing a hop grown in a different location, are placed in front of you. This is when you tear into the cut, rub the cones between your hands and deeply inhale the aromatics of the hop, analyzing and deciding whether this is the lot you want or if you want to smell the next one in line… or both. With certain lots, you know immediately whether or not it’s up to your standard, but some are so close to the other that you want to smell each of them 3 or 4 times before making a decision. Once you figure out which lot you want, the next variety and a new set of brewers cuts appear and you start the process over again. We selected 9 varieties of hops this year, and all lots were of amazingly high quality, making some of my selections incredibly difficult. But that’s not exactly a bad problem to have, is it?
If you are not familiar with how hops are grown and harvested, allow me to introduce you to the process. The hop plant, Humulus lupulus, is planted in the early spring. It emerges from the ground as a vine and trained to grow up on vertical trellises. The hop cone, which is the only part of the plant used in the brewing process, develops on the vine and continues to grow and mature throughout the growing season until harvest time, which usually begins towards the end of the summer and continues for several weeks. The hops are picked from their vines at their peak of maturity and immediately sent to large kilns to be dried in a manner that doesn’t compromise the delicate essential oils that brewers value so highly. Afterwards, the dried hops are baled and either sent off to be stored in freezers until they can be processed into hop pellets or sent off to breweries that use hops in whole form.
Hop Farm Visits
While the work in the small selection rooms was the main cause of my visit to Yakima, I also wanted to take the opportunity to see the farms and meet the farmers that would be supplying our hops.
I had the pleasure to spend a day at CLS Farms while they were harvesting Chinook (which just happens to be one of my favorite hop varieties). The air was thick with dank hop aroma, and from where I stood, I could watch truck after truck roll up to the pickers, packed to the brim with vines of Chinook. I spent a lot of my day in educational seminars about the state of the hop industry, but I also had plenty of time to wander the fields, pickers, and kilns. Hops as far as the eye could see. It was a happy day.
Also on the itinerary was a trip to BT Loftus Ranch, one of the larger Yakima hop growers, where I was given a tour by 4th generation hop farmer, Patrick Smith. They were harvesting Ahtanum that day and had just finished drying the new hop, Mosaic (sidenote: I am stoked for this hop – wait and see what we do with it next year).
Loftus Ranch has one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen – a small experimental hop yard. A few vines of this, a few vines of that, some familiar names and hops that you just don’t see anymore, but many of them are known only by a number. This is the part of the tour when I get really excited. Knowing my interest in new and exciting hop varieties, Patrick takes me to hops that smell of pineapple, coconut, vanilla, mango, papaya, sweet pine forests, and more. Amazing!
Patrick Smith smells the hops at BT Loftus Ranch.
After my trip had concluded, I was left with a lingering feeling of how awesome and crucial it was to be able to connect with the growers and the environment of such a personally important brewing ingredient. My first hop selection is an experience I will never forget.
That’s about it kind drinkers of Drake’s. We’re excited about this year’s hop harvest, which means you should be too! Beers with 2012 harvest hops are already starting to roll out of the brewery, so drink up.