Yakima Valley farmers develop new hop varieties

Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJune 21, 2014 

Trying to quench the thirst of American craft brewers has some Yakima Valley farmers developing new hop varieties that add distinctly different flavors to beer.

Simcoe, which gives beer a black currant taste, has become a popular aroma hop with brewers after being bred and launched by the Perrault family near Toppenish.

That hop developed by Perrault Farms' Select Botanicals Group is one of the many varieties that have caught on with craft brewers and helped expand Washington's hop industry.

Hops acreage is up 7 percent this year to about 29,000 acres. That's about 2,000 more acres than farmers harvested last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Earlier this week the tendrils of vines from the plants started to reach the top of their rope trellis systems in much of the Yakima Valley.

Washington farmers grow about 75 percent of the nation's hops. And the U.S. produces the second most in the world after Germany. Last year's state crop was valued at $202.1 million, according to the USDA.

Two of the largest aroma variety hops in the state, Cascade and Centennial, have continued to increase in popularity while some of the alpha hops used as the bittering agent in beer have continued to decline, said Ann George, with the Hop Growers of America.

And though craft brewing accounts for less than 10 percent of the total beer volume, it's driving the demand for hops, she said.

That's because craft brewers use so many more hops, sometimes using 2 to 3 pounds of hops for a 31-gallon barrel of beer.

Breeding programs have been trying to respond to the increasing demand by coming up with unique flavors, such as caramel, pineapple and melon.

"We have an industry that is hungry for these varieties," said Jason Perrault of Perrault Farms.

Perrault Farms, now fourth- and fifth-generation hops farmers, have been breeding hop varieties long before craft brewing started to take off in the early 2000s.

But now, Perrault said, they've shifted from breeding alpha hops to creating their own aroma varieties.

For larger breweries, changing a beer formula is a huge endeavor. So new varieties had to mimic the tastes of current varieties, he said.

"A detectable difference is actually desirable (now)," he said, noting that craft brewers are willing to take the risk and try something new.

Simcoe, in particular, has been a success for Select Botanicals, which partners with John I. Haas Inc. to breed new varieties through Hop Breeding Co. in the Yakima Valley.

About 1,800 acres are planted with Simcoe this year, up 36 percent from 2013.

Together, Select Botanicals and Hop Breeding Co. have developed and commercialized seven hops varieties -- Ahtanum, Warrior, Palisade, Simcoe, Citra, Mosaic and their latest, Equinox.

Equinox's aroma is a complex spectrum, ranging from berries to tangerine orange and green pepper.

Locally developed hops have an advantage over the traditional European varieties, because they were specifically chosen to thrive in the hot, dry conditions of the Yakima Valley, Perrault said.

Now, about 50 varieties of hops are grown in Washington, some in such small amounts that only a few farmers raise them, George said.

"The industry is trying to be very responsive to the market and to the needs not only of the larger brewers but also to the smaller brewers," she said.

Brewers can't be assured they will have the hops they want unless they have a contract because of the cost of adding new acreage, Perrault said.

"We know the demand is there and we are working under a system that's highly contracted," he said.

New trellis systems and irrigation cost about $6,000 to $8,000 per acre, not including the price of land, he said.

And many growers are at their picking capacity because the window for the harvest is so short, Perrault said.

Most of the hops are being picked during the middle of a six-week window, typically peaking the first two weeks in September.

Specific machines are needed to harvest hops, and then leafy cones must be dried and baled in special facilities.

Experts expect the industry to continue to grow, at least for now.

"These companies are finding a very strong following in the marketplace for their products," George said.

A recent study by Washington State University researchers found that consumers are willing to pay more for beer that meets their overall preferences in taste and hoppiness.

Beer drinkers are willing to pay a 44-cent premium purely based on superior taste, said the study.

"We expect that newly introduced beers will be increasingly differentiated and that different hop varieties and levels of hop intensity will be keys to quality differentiation," researchers wrote in the article published recently in the journal Agricultural and Resource Economics Review. "As consumers find beers that match their ideal concept of taste, they will be willing to pay a premium for them."

But the kind and style of beers might change, Perrault said.

India Pale Ale, known as IPA, has been the "golden child" of craft brewing, but that may not always be the case, he said. Perrault said he thinks more interesting creations by craft brewers are just on the horizon.

-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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