Record WA hops harvest quenching thirsty beer market

KING 5's Jake Whittenberg reports.

Every September, Graham Gemache barely has a minute to sit and enjoy a beer.

That's because he's too busy harvesting the essential ingredient that will be used in thousands of varieties of beer around the world.

"It's my 26th harvest, and this is a huge hops year," he said, standing alongside a truck packed full of freshly picked hop cones.

The explosion of the craft beer movement worldwide, if fueling a surge in interest for the little green crop.

Cornerstone Ranches, Gemache's farm near Toppenish, WA, is experiencing an historic year for hops because of ideal growing conditions and global demand.

The Washington Hop Commission estimates 79% of all hops production in the U.S., now comes from the fields of Central Washington.

"The hop industry has really responded to the craft beer movement," said Gemache.

He points out, the perfect amount of sun and rain helped him cultivate some of the best Centennial Hops he's ever seen. Gemache estimates the farm will produce more than $7 million worth this year.

Growth in Washington State

Overall, the value of Washington hops production has steadily climbed to $280 million in 2015, up from $217.3 million in 2014 and $185 million in 2013 according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Hops acreage is in it's fifth consecutive year of growth, up another 17% this year.

With the USDA estimating 13 million additional pounds of hops incoming this season, this would total a record 91.8 million pounds for northwest producers.

But industry leaders warn, despite the explosion of growth, the market has its ups and downs.

"We're very pleased with the U.S. hop industry's ability to respond to the demands of a burgeoning craft brewing industry," said Kevin Riel, 4th generation farmer and President of Hop Growers of America.

"However, we caution growers and brewers alike to remember the cyclical nature of a mature hop market."

Unique crop

Hops are very unique in their growth and are mostly used for beer, but there are other medicinal uses as well.

The vines are planted in rows 7 to 8 feet apart and return each Spring without seeding. Each spring, the roots send forth new 'bines' that are trained to grow vertical, on strings planted in the center of the vine. They grow to more than 20 feet tall where they connect with an overhead trellis.

In the past, the small green hop cones were picked by hand. But farmers use more sophisticated machines now to cut vines before they're trucked to a facility for stripping.

Gemache has around 45 hired workers on his farm every year. Quality workers are in high demand in Washington State. In 2016, Gemache says he'll pay his highest minimum wage yet, at $12.69 an hour.

Good for beer

No matter what beer you may prefer, hops is most likely one of the main ingredients. It was once primarily used only as a preservative in beer making. But today, brewers around the world use hops to add balance to beer through bitterness, flavor, and aroma.

The uniqueness of the hops flavor in unmistakable. It can bring out flavors of pine, citrus and herbs flavors that are perfect for a brew master to work with.

Dry hopping, the act of adding full hops flowers to beer later in the process, is also becoming more popular.

"The hop flower itself is beautiful," said Matt Lincecum, founder of Fremont Brewing in Seattle. "Its romantic in its use and incredible vitality over a short amount of time."

Lincecum receives almost all of his hops from Central Washington and points out the uniqueness of the crop is unmatchable.

Lincecum's 'Cowiche Canyon Organic Fresh hop ale' is a crowd pleasure, that uses whole hops to add flavor to the beer.

With the use of Washington hops, Lincecum has been able to expand quickly, and reach a production of nearly 100,000 barrels per year since Fremont Brewing began in 2007.

"We are as lucky as it gets," said Lincecum. "For us, this is the best place in the world to be."

A future for hops

Craft breweries in the U.S. are continuing to surpass the previously held record of 4,131 breweries held in 1873.

More breweries, more beer and more hops will be needed from farmers like Gemache.

His primary crop is still apples. But he now has more than 500 acres devoted to hops and is constantly seeking new land for expansion.

The fridge in his farm office is packed with cans of beer from across the country, left by brew masters hoping to secure some of his crop and perhaps take home fresh hops for specialty beers.

"I'm a farmer. Every year it’s a very intense renewed feeling of anxiety, joy and pain," he said with a laugh.

And what you might see now at Cornerstone Ranches, is a far cry from where his great grandfather started in the late 1800's.

"I think my great grandfather would be astounded at what a large portion of the farm is hops now," he said.

"Hops is the fun crop to farm. This never gets old."

Copyright 2016 KING


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