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YAKIMA VALLEY TRIP 2015.

Passion and excitement… Those are the words that are best to describe a recent event that took place for myself and nine others at the end of September. When I discovered that I was going to embark on this trip to Yakima Valley I was excited to learn so much more about this fundamental ingredient to beer and how it can shape the taste as well as the aroma of beer.

When people think about beer they often grasp certain elements about its ingredients, but I don’t think they realise the level of effort that people go to in order for us to enjoy quality beer, one of the finer things in life.
I recently accompanied some beer bloggers and competition winners to Yakima Valley in Washington State USA where we were lucky to fully appreciate the extent of this by going to some hop farms with Meantime Brewmaster and Founder Alastair Hook to see what he has been doing for the past 15 years in order to get the best hops for the Meantime beers that we love and enjoy.

As a brewer we are striving to change the way people think about beer. We wanted the tour party to appreciate the quality of our ingredients and acknowledge that Meantime will never compromise on how they source these ingredients. To ensure that this message was taken away by everyone on the trip, I set out to make this not just a trip but a journey about hop farming, and how these hops go into beers, not just ours at Meantime but also many of the craft beers that have taken the US beer market by storm. Hops are in huge demand in the US with acreage up for a fourth year in a row… What that means is that there are 50 different varieties of hop made available for brewers around the world to use. The three American states of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon produce approximately 97% of the US hop crop.

Also the US used to grow generally 70% alpha and 30% aroma or dual purpose hops, while Germany was the reverse. Now, roles have reversed as the US has had large demands for their aroma hops, and the strong aromas that they have become famous for producing e.g., strong citrus, pine, spice, and overall strong, robust aromas.

Our journey began In London Heathrow airport where we all started with a pint of Meantime’s London Pale Ale. For us to get to Yakima Valley we needed to go via Seattle. Seattle has a big craft beer scene, so we visited two breweries that Seattle has become quite famous for: Pike Brewery in Pike Place and Red Hook Brewery. At Pike Brewery we were able to try various different beers but best of all we were given a bespoke tour around their Brewhouse hosted by Zan, their tour guide. We also met with brewers who allowed us to sample some of the beer fresh from the fermentation tanks.

Afterwards we then met with Charles Finkel, the Founder and President of Pike Brewery. Charles had heard about us at Meantime and thought what we were doing in terms of the trip was incredible and something that each brewery in the UK and US should do, as it is a great way to learn about what hops give to beer.

After our really enjoyable time in Seattle we set off on our journey to Yakima Valley… The three hour journey was one that you could only describe as a scenic breath of fresh air as we travelled from built-up downtown Seattle to the glorious mountains and wildlife that moved uphill towards a desert-like Yakima Valley.

Yakima Valley is known for hop farming but also for its vast amounts of vineyards. Yakima (pronounced Yak-e-ma) is just as much a beer haven as it is a wine haven. In our two days in Yakima the purpose was to visit two well-known hop farms that had been producing and trading hops for several years and finish off with a brewery tour at a very quirky and very popular up and coming brewery called Balebreaker.

On the morning of our trip we were joined by Ann E. George who is the Executive Director of Hop Growers of America and the Washington Hop Commission. Ann was a fountain of knowledge and was able to give us a tour guide experience that was not only exciting but highly educational about the difference in hops, the styles, the growth and expansion of US hop farming dating back several years. We also had the delight of meeting Paul from Charles Farham’s on our trip, who took us through the journey that he and Alastair go on each year in order to pick the best hops from different hop farms around Yakima.

The first hop farm that we visited on our morning was Puterbaugh Farms aka Hops direct, which was a family run hop farm, where we were greeted by Dianne and Taylor. The whole group spent a few hours rubbing and touching hops of many different varieties including Centennial, Citra and Crystal hops. We had a tour of their equipment and learnt about how they as a family have harvested and distributed hops for several years.

There is a key to hop picking and how to find and source great hops, on our trip we leant some key tricks about this. One way to tell which hops are best is by breaking up the hops, by rubbing them together using your thumb and index finger, but the best way to rub and smell hops is to rub them together using your palms. Once they break up you can really smell the variety of aromas that the hops produce. This smell is so glorious that it allows you to appreciate some notes that you probably never expected from a hop plant, especially considering that it is from the same family as stinging nettles.

When we finished smelling hops and checking out the hop facilities at Puterbaugh we moved onto Roy Farms, which has been providing hops since 1907. The farm is still family-run, with Andy Roy overseeing operations. Andy and his tour guide gave us an insight into their hops; Roy Farms specialise in fresh pellets hops which enables the hops to stay fresher for longer and allows them to travel around the world and stay packaged fresher for longer. Andy Roy employs over 350 members of staff at harvest time.

The annual harvest begins in late August, and progresses through to late September. Each variety reaches peak maturity at a different time, and must be monitored closely. After hop cones are stripped from bines, specialised equipment removes the leaves and stems, which are chopped and spread back into the fields to improve the soil. Cleaned cones are immediately transported by conveyor to kilns, where warm air dries the hops for about nine hours, reducing them to about 30% weight and 8-9% moisture content. After cooling for 24 hours, dried hops are compressed into 200 pound bales, wrapped in bale cloth and subjected to inspection. Bales are quickly transported to cold storage warehouses, ready to then go out to brewers or breweries.

Learning about hops and the process that takes place was something that every brewery or every true beer connoisseur should experience. I felt so lucky to have experienced firsthand what it is to go into a hop farm and pick and then rub fresh hops and to learn about a key ingredient of the drink that has been on this earth for centuries. Not only was this a once in a lifetime opportunity but it has educated myself and others who were not just companions on this journey but also now great friends.

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