As craft beer comes to rival quality wine as a palate pleaser for the discriminating, the hop industry whose bitter green cones give the beer its special taste is surging and thus playing an increasingly important role in the economy of the Valley and also Washington State.
The fields of grapes for Washington's successful and growing wine industry are spread across the Yakima Valley while the fields where the hops are grown are far less visible and the acres less numerous. But the fact is that hop growers and their industry, by far the largest in the nation, predate the wine industry by several decades.
Now the hop industry, after years of ups and downs that were mostly downers, is riding a growth wave thanks to the surging popularity of craft beer, most of which is brewed with hops from the Yakima Valley.
"The hop industry is booming right now and adding huge value to the Yakima Valley economy," says David McFadden, president of the Yakima County Development Association. "We are seeing hop processors purchase new buildings, add new equipment and boost local payrolls. Agriculture is very strong right now and hops are complementing our farmers' livelihoods."
For comparison, it's important to note that the hop industry's approximately $160 million annual contribution to Washington's economy is only 14th on the state's agricultural-products values and just a slice of the $2.25 billion annual production of the number one apple industry. But as McFadden notes, the industry's surge is bringing other benefits as well.
"The past few years have been an exciting up and thus a nice change for the industry," notes Ann George, who has been the chief administrator for the Washington Hop Industry association for 27 years and also serves as the chief administrative person for the Hop Growers of America.
"The success of the industry in the past few years has attracted back some of the young talent that had moved away from the farms," she adds, noting that many of the farmers are adding hops to their agricultural-product mix, with the acreage dedicated to hops being between one-quarter acre and 10 acres.
George is in Austria this week for the annual summer gathering of the International Hop Growers Convention, the global organization for hop growers where she chairs what may be the most important commission, called the Commission on Regulatory Harmonization. She thus is the global organization's key person in dealing with the trade and pesticide rules that are the primary challenge for craft brewing as the industry becomes ever more attractive globally, thus adding countries into which hops are sold.
George, one of whose duties is tracking statistics for the industry, says 74 percent of the 2014 hop crop will be from acreage in Washington State, 14 percent from Oregon (virtually all of that produced in the Willamette Valley) and 10 percent from Idaho.
Almost 90 percent of the U.S. hop production is exported to other countries, where craft-brewing industries are either already in existence of where the industry is beginning to take shape.
Most hop farmers in the Valley are third or fourth generation and one of the largest and best-known of those is B. T. Loftus Ranches, which began in 1932 when the first five acres of hops were planted by the great grandparents of current owners Patrick Smith, Meghann Quinn, and Kevin Smith.
The Bale Breaker Brewery, smack in the middle of the Lofus hop fields, opened in April of 2014 as the latest Loftus venture.
Germany, which produces 60 percent of the world's hops, and the Yakima Valley, which produces 25 percent of the world crop and 80 percent of the U.S. hop crop, are the two most noteworthy geographic areas for hop production.
Thus it's natural that there would be a convergence in some manner for the two most noted hop-producing regions. And the convergence is the decades-long presence in the Yakima Valley of the U.S. arm of the Barth-Haas Group, the world's largest supplier of hop products and services. Barth-Haas, founded in 1794, is now managed by the seventh and eighth generations of the Barth family and has roughly a 30 percent share of the hops market in Germany.
The U.S. arm of the company, John I. Haas, Inc., which owns and operates its own hop farms, warehouses, pellet and extraction plants and has been a fixture in the Yakima Valley hop industry for some 70 years, next month celebrates its 100th birthday.
Peter Mahony, who is Director of Supply Chain Management for John I. Haas, Inc., and has been with the Washington, D.C., based company for 28 years, explains that hops are "the spice of beer," giving the brew its flavor. And craft brewers use about 6-to-8 times as much hops as major brewers and their brews use one of the variety of what are called aroma hops, that magnify the beer flavor, whereas brewing used to involve what is known as alpha hops, still the primary hop for major breweries.
Mahony notes that acreage devoted to aroma hops in the Yakima Valley has become about 60 percent of the annual harvest, which extends from late August to early October and involves about 29,000 acres in the Yakima area with the average size farm about 450 acres on which hops are one of several crops grown.
Mahony, who says the 1,500 acres that Haas farms in the Valley is one planted in hops, expects that the growth of craft brewing and thus the health of the hop industry and its aroma varieties will continue, "but for how long is the million-dollar question."
He points to the attendance at the annual craft-brewers conference as a cause for long-term optimism for hop growers, noting "attendance at this year's crafters' conference was up 40 percent over the year before, to more than 9,000 attendees."
If there is any doubt that craft brewing is attracting a whole new generation of beer consumers around the globe, it should be dispelled by the advise from a beer sommelier at a Barth tasting event in Germany.
To those who might not be familiar with the fact there are beer sommeliers, Ann George makes the point that "more and more hospitality groups have a beer sommelier as well as a wine sommelier."
As the sommelier quotes puts it: "You shouldn't drink our beers when you're thirsty. Our beers should be drunk in small quantities on special occasions."