The hop harvest is just winding down and, in the Pacific Northwest, that means it's also fresh hop beer season. Immediately after hop farmers took topcutting machines to their bines, loaded them into trucks and prepared to haul them to barn-sized kilns for drying, some of their craft-brewing climate cut them off on the way to the heaters. On harvest day, some brewers took freshly cut bines, pluck off their hop cones, threw them into boiling wort and use them to made what's become a region's favorite seasonal beers.
Some brewers argue that "fresh" means the freshest dried hops of the season, but brewing pioneer Bert Grant and his Yakima Brewing Company thought otherwise more than 20 years ago and reserved the "fresh" label for hops plucked and thrown into the brewing process within a 24-hour window. By using hops within that timeframe, brewers can tweak a beer's aroma, reduce its bitterness and let the citrus, pine and spice flavors of a hop run free. A result is an overall more flavorful beer without the harsh hop bitterness.
No place in the U.S. has more reverence for this time of year than the Yakima Valley. During the summer, bushy hop bines crawl up wire attached to tall poles, making green curtains that stretch for miles and giving large swaths of the region a citric aroma as the hops ripen in the sun. Yakima-area hop farmers and hop brokers welcome brewers from all corners of the globe during harvest season as they shore up contracts for future hop growth, determine brewers' needs and showcase new and experimental hop varieties. Visitors make their way through the hop museum in mural-lined Toppenish, visit nearly a dozen area breweries (some located in the middle of hop farms) and eventually gather for the Yakima Fresh Hop Ale Festival at the end of September.
Nearly 60 breweries and 7,000 revelers showed up to the event in Downtown Yakima this year, but they did so amid a period of uncertainty in the beer industry. According to the Brewers Association craft beer industry group, craft beer growth slowed from double digit percentage points for much of the last decade to less than 7% in 2016. Growth for the first half of 2017 hit 8%, but a whole lot of that growth comes from the newest of the nation's nearly 6,000 breweries. Just five years ago, there were fewer than 2,500 U.S. breweries.
That's still growth, but even a slowdown has consequences. Last year, 96 U.S. breweries closed, which is the highest number of closings in more than a decade and more than double the 47 that closed five years ago. This year, Yakima hops broker 47Hops filed for bankruptcy, citing slowed craft beer growth and overly optimistic brewers as the reasons for its struggles.
They may have a point. Few places feel a slowdown in the beer business as acutely as Yakima. According to the Department of Agriculture, the Yakima Valley will produce 72 million pounds of hops this year. By comparison, the entire U.S. will produce 97.6 million pounds, making Yakima responsible for roughly 75% of U.S. hop production. It's nearly triple the production of the next two largest hop-producing states combined (Oregon and Idaho, with nearly even portions of a 26-million-pound yield). If Yakima was its own country, it would be the second-largest hop producer in the world behind Germany.
If Yakima produces too few hops that brewers are looking for, it creates a shortage and spikes prices. If it plants too many acres of hops, suppliers including 47Hops get stuck with the excess supply. In 47Hops's case, it's sitting on nearly $5 million in hops that brewers don't need (even though they're contractually obligated to take them).
At first glance, it appeared that none of that seemed to dampen the revelry at Yakima's Fresh Hop Ale Festival. But taking a closer look around the tents and seeing some brewers with lines across the festival grounds and others with bored pourers just waiting for customers to take pity on them and their beers, the roughly 60 brewers on hand seemed like a microcosm of the beer market in general: A few hot brands struggling to keep up with demand and a whole lot of brewers trying to unload supply.
All of that said, fresh-hop beer is a joy for the drinker regardless of the state of the industry. While seasoned brewers in hop-growing states like Washington, Oregon and Idaho have mastered fresh-hop brewing, watching new brewers struggle with the logistics of the process, the inconsistency from year to year and the extremely finite shelf life of each batch is an intriguing and informative part of the process. I attending this year's installment of Yakima's Fresh Hop Ale Festival and found 10 examples of the diverse offerings that regional brewers concoct around this time of year. Considering that Oregon brewers alone brewed more than 150 different varieties of fresh-hop beer this year alone, this list is by no means comprehensive:
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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.