Washington state tops when it comes to hops

Craig Craker, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 21, 2012 

Mike Clancy knows a good beer when he tastes one. Sitting at a table in White Bluffs Brewing in Richland, the Kennewick man took a big gulp of the Almost Bluffdiver IPA and let out a long sigh as the beer frosted his mustache, before giving a thumbs up.

Clancy should know a good beer. He brews it at home and has helped brew beer at Ice Harbor Brewing Co. in Kennewick and with White Bluffs owner Mike Sutherland.

What he has tasted at White Bluffs, located off Highway 240 near Horn Rapids in north Richland, has routinely been delicious.

“Mike’s beers are extremely clean,” Clancy said. “He is a hands-on owner making his own beer. One guy back there, he is pretty particular at how he brews his beer. He is very consistent in what he’s doing.”

Part of what makes Sutherland’s beers so good are the ingredients he uses -- hops grown in the Yakima Valley.

“I go through Yakima (Valley) on pretty much everything,” Sutherland said. “The hop is critical to the taste of the beer in order for it to impart the right bitterness and flavor profile.”

The state is ranked No. 1 in the nation in hops production.

More than 23,320 acres of hops are harvested in Washington, while Oregon and Idaho combine for more than 6,000 acres.

“We have an ideal climate for hops,” said Dan Newhouse, director of the state Washington State Department of Agriculture and a hops farmer. “Hops like long, dry weather and our long growing season. The climatic conditions and the volcanic soil are suited for hops.”

Newhouse was born on a hop farm near Sunnyside, and his family has been in the business since the 1940s. He still grows the crop for Irving Newhouse & Sons Inc.

Within 30 miles of Newhouse’s farm, 75 percent of the nation’s hop crop is produced. Hops also are grown in Germany and Australia, and parts of Oregon and Idaho, but not to the degree they are grown in the Yakima Valley.

Hops are a perennial, sprouting up in rows in March. As the green, viney plants grow, farmers take to the fields in April, twining the plants to an overhead trellis system.

Throughout the summer, hops continue to grow on trellises and are harvested the third week of August, continuing to the end of September. There are more than 80 varieties of hops, all of which can be used to add a different style, taste and aroma to beer.

“Over the last couple of decades, craft brewing has really grown in the United States,” Newhouse said. “At one time, it was thought to be a fad, and it continues to grow, and proves it is not. The general public likes a full-flavored beer that craft breweries provide.

“People are very discerning when it comes to the beer they drink. They like to have the variety and the different flavors the craft breweries provide.”

While typical beer drinkers would not be able to tell what kind of hop they are drinking from the taste, the specific hop is important to making the beer.

“Hops change the character of the beer depending on the type and amount used,” Sutherland said. “The brewer provides the knowledge and expertise to determine the amount and type to deliver the desired character.”

Most hops are marketed through brokerage firms, though some farms work directly with some of the larger beer companies.

Sutherland buys his hops from Hopunion, a grower-owned wholesale company based in Yakima.

Hopunion sells a wide variety of hops, which it purchases from area farmers.

“We source our hops from several of our owners,” said marketing manager Melody Meyer. “They bring their hops to us, we process them into either pellets or raw hops, and we distribute them to the home brewers or breweries that specialize in the craft beer industry.”

Hopunion’s parent company -- Hopunion Raiser -- was founded in Germany during the 1800s. In the late 1970s, the company established operations in Sunnyside and through a series of mergers and sales, Hopunion eventually was bought by a group of area growers.

The company provides premium hops and hop products to customers worldwide, including raw hops, hop pellets, hop extracts and hop oil, among other things.

White Bluffs Brewing uses both the pellets and the raw hops, depending on what beer Sutherland is brewing.

Pellets are used because they don’t clog up the brewing equipment as easily. Raw hop leaves can plug up pipes.

No matter which type of hops product Sutherland uses, his beer keeps the customers coming back.

“He doesn’t sell the beer before it is time,” Clancy said in explaining what makes Sutherland a good brewmaster. “He does a good job of making sure it is ready to come out before he sells it.”

-- Craig Craker: 509-582-1509; ccraker@tricityherald.com

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