A lush pocket of Washington, the Yakima Valley is a really a back yard for our state. No fancy landscaping. It’s our garden on the east side of the Cascades, filled with pear trees, cherries, mint, and acres of hop yards-strange and beautiful jungles of green where vines twine their way up trellises to wire canopies 18 feet above the ground.
The youngest son of a local farm family, Jason Perrault, 36, is walking us into a hop yard and explaining the challenges of growing hops nowadays, the issues of oversupply and low prices. It’s early afternoon, and a dry August wind is blowing through the farm. Things around here don’t start jumping until after sunset, says Jason. “Then the hops come off the vine better. The cones are less prone to shatter.”
The fragile cones, which are made up of hop flowers, are almost lighter than air, but they are prized for their potency. Their acids are what influence the character of beer. Early in the brewing process, they preserve the beer and make it bitter. At the end, they provide the flavor and aroma.
As Jason walks into the yard, he reaches up and snaps off a few cones. He pulls one apart, crushing the gold-green bloom into his palm. Then he bends his head and inhales. He offers me one and I do the same. I can almost taste the beer it will make.
We climb into Jason’s truck and speed across the landscape around the town of Toppenish, as Jason points out the now-empty fields where hops used to grow. In the past 20 years many of the valley’s yards have disappeared, he explains. “Now there are only about 50 or 60 families left,” he says, attributing the decline to overproduction in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The number of farms may be dwindling, but this quiet valley produces about 75 percent of the hops grown in the United States. Much of it feeds the big industrial brewers as well as beer makers in Europe and Asia.
A fourth-generation heir to a hops-farming legacy, Jason started working in the hops vines at the age of five, when his father paid him 50 cents an hour to help wind twine for the trellises. A few years later he had his first real job, arching the vines, which meant training the shoots from one plant in two directions to form a Y as they reach upward, a miserable task, as the plants are covered with sharp hairs.
When he enrolled as an agricultural economics student at Washington State University, he knew he wanted to go back to the valley and farm with his family. But by the time he graduated in 1997, there wasn’t enough work for him to join the family business full time. Instead, he returned to school to learn the science of hops breeding, earning a master’s degree in crop science in 2001. Now he runs a breeding program for a group of hops farmers, including his family. “I’m kind of a step away from the farm,” says Jason. “I want to do work that will not only impact us, but will benefit the whole industry. If the others go away, we’re going to go away, too.”
The Washington legacy of hops farming goes back to the early 1870s-years before Washington was a state-when Charles Carpenter, great-great grandfather of Stephen Carpenter ’79, brought hops from upstate New York. When the Carpenter family realized the climate and soils east of the Cascades were well suited for the vines, they settled near Yakima.
A lot of what they grew was transported by horse and wagon to the Columbia River, and from there, by barge to Portland. They needed hundreds of hands to pick the crop, often hiring farm workers from as far away as Spokane and Native Americans from the Columbia Plateau who were passing through on their way from picking huckleberries.
Today Stephen Carpenter and his family are still in the business, though they’ve had to diversify, trading some of their hop yards for cherries, apples, and wine grapes. The Carpenters also joined with 13 other farm families, including the Perraults, to form a company called Yakima Chief to collectively market and sell their hops. While they do plenty of business with Washington breweries, their big customers are the national and international beer makers. As a group, these families farm more than 20 percent of the hop acreage in the country.
Making beer and raising the raw ingredients for it can be just as complex and interesting as growing grapes for wine, says Jason. Like grapes, hops have different varieties and characteristics. Some make beer strong and bitter, while others produce a soothing smell and smooth flavor. One of the most commonly used hops, Cascade, was released in the 1970s by the USDA breeding program in Oregon. It’s the classic taste of American beer. Anyone who’s had a Budweiser knows the taste of Cascade. That USDA program is one of only four hop research programs in the country. The others include the WSU research station in Prosser, where agronomist Steve Kenny is working on new cultivars to increase yields and resist disease; and two private efforts, including Jason’s, in Washington.
Through his breeding program, Jason is planting low-trellis trials, where vines are trained to grow to half the usual height. Lowering the trellises will make it easier for farmers to control disease and harvest the hops. He is administering the study on 15 acres with support from the Washington Hops Commission. In addition, he is charged with looking for more environmentally sustainable ways for the members of Yakima Chief to farm the hops and ways for them to cut costs.
Last year a new hybrid hop from Jason’s program caused a buzz among craft brewers. Simcoe is prized for its strong but pleasant bitterness and its lack of astringency. The hop is appearing in microbrews around the country. Pennsylvania’s Weyerbacher Brewing Company, for example, makes a Double Simcoe India Pale Ale. Here in Washington, the Anacortes Brewery uses it in its Extra Special Bitter. And Portland’s Widmer Brothers features it in its Drop Top Amber Ale.
While Jason and his colleagues realized it would be hard to convince a big brewer to try the new variety, they hadn’t expected such a welcome from the microbreweries. “But they were more willing to try something new,” says Jason. The demand is so great, that hops suppliers can’t keep it in stock.
As sunset nears, trucks fill the gravel driveway of the Perrault Farm. More than a dozen workers arrive to man the machinery and harvest the vines in the hop yard about a half mile away. There it’s a race between men swinging machetes to sever the vines and a big truck nosing up behind to catch them. The vines fall in waves. As soon as one truck is filled, another takes its place.
Back at the processing house, the vines are unloaded and stripped of their cones and foliage, and the cones roll into a three-story behemoth, a Rube Goldberg monster of a machine bristling with belts, wires, ladders, stairs, grates, and gears. Two men climb around the apparatus, constantly tending it to keep it unclogged, while two women armed with brooms sweep up the cones that have escaped to the floor. The din is so loud, we have to shout to be heard. As everything turns, churns, and shakes, tiny petals float free and drift up into the overhead lights like thousands of little moths.
The cleaned hops arrive via conveyer belt at a quieter building next door, where they are dropped into a kiln–they will bake and dry there for many hours. Here a lone man is tending the beds as we walk in. “Drying really is kind of an art,” says Jason, sticking his arm into the two-foot-deep bed of hops to get a feel for the moisture. “It’s called feeling the kiln,” he says. “The best dryers can just walk out there and feel the moisture content. The rest of us have to take measurements.” Aromas of pine, lemon, and basil are carried on the heat of the kiln. When the hops are dry enough, they travel on another conveyer belt to a third building to cool. Once fully prepared, the hops are bundled into 200-pound bales, then wrapped in cloth, and are either stored or shipped.
Here in Washington, our beer is different. Because of the proximity of barley for mal
ting and fresh hops in Yakima, regional brewers can make hoppier, more robust beer, a far cry from most of the post-prohibition lagers that have dominated the beerscape.
In the time before temperance, breweries spilled across the Northwest. Every little town had a brew hall–Aberdeen, Ellensburg, Fairhaven, Twisp. The City Brewery in Walla Walla was for nearly 30 years run by a widow who lived on-site. And Steilacoom had the first in the territory, built near the sawmill by Nicholas Denlin in 1854.
A great grandfather of James Bockemuehl’s ’68 opened a brewery with his brother near Fort Spokane in 1887. They did a brisk business selling lager to the soldiers stationed at the fort four miles up the road. They made such frequent trips to deliver beer, their horse could do it on his own, says Bockemuehl. “My grandfather was born in 1880, and he sort of grew up at the brewery,” he says. “He had these great stories about working there and about riding the stagecoach from there to Hartline, paying for the trip with six bottles of beer.”
Even little Uniontown, a German farming community south of Pullman, had Jacobs Brothers. A popular center for the townsfolk, the little brick brewery was home to the local Fourth of July celebrations, according to historians Gary and Gloria Meier, who wrote Brewed in the Pacific Northwest. Brewer Peter Jacobs would catch, cook, and serve up for free the local chickens that had fattened themselves on his leftover mash over the previous months.
These beer halls were havens from a difficult life on the frontier. There weren’t many places a man could go to socialize and relax. Women, at least those with a proper upbringing, were not included.
The halls were homes to lively discourse, clubs every man could join, and he often attended in his work clothes, still dirty from his job. “The saloon was a place where a man informed himself about the social and political matters of the day,” says historian Norman Clark in his 1965 book about Washington’s prohibition. In these brew halls, over lagers, pilsners, porters, and cream ales, workers forged political alliances, found jobs, and formed unions. Fed by growing populations and by demand boosted by the railroad and the Alaska gold rush, the Northwest was home to a beer boom.
Most of the old brew makers were trained German braumeister, some with very familiar names, like Henry Weinhard, who came to Portland in 1856. In the late 1800s, they were drawn to the American West, where they could ply their trade among thirsty loggers and pioneers. Weinhard’s Portland brewery was soon followed by Andrew Heimrich’s Seattle Bay View Brewing Company, where Rainier’s Steam Beer was first made. At the same time, Leopold Schmidt liked the artesian water in Tumwater and opened what years later became the Olympia Brewing Company.
And then suddenly, the breweries and beer halls disappeared.
On December 31, 1915, Washington enacted its state prohibition law, a good four years before most everyone else. Organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the International Order of Good Templars enlisted churchgoers and tapped into the polarizing tensions that came from rapid population growth, immigration, and urbanization. They argued that many of society’s ills could be traced to drunkenness and vice stemming from alcohol use, particularly in the cities.
As the nation followed suit, the move to Prohibition drove thousands of saloons and small breweries out of business. Several of the bigger breweries were able to survive by producing other products. Olympia’s parent company, for example, made sparkling apple juice. But the small-town breweries disappeared, most believed forever.
By the end of the 1920s, public sentiment turned against Prohibition. It was clear that the law hadn’t reduced the social ills of poverty, crime, and mental illness. In fact, it had created a black market for alcohol and benefited organized crime. The repeal succeeded in 1933, but the beer culture that returned was only a shadow of what it had been in the early days. The larger breweries started up again, but they changed their products to meet a wider taste. The local beer halls had been devastated. Instead, big plants were bottling lagers and pilsners, golden-colored mass-market beers that were believed to have a wide appeal.
As beer sales expanded, product selection narrowed. The big beer companies started consolidating. In just the past few years, even the big names in the Northwest, Olympia and Rainier, have been bought up and closed down. Today most of the beer in America is produced by just three companies: Anheuser Busch/Budweiser, Miller, and Coors. In 2005 these three accounted for nearly 80 percent of all beer sold in the United States. The same fate befell Europe, except that the diverse legacies lost there were centuries old, not just decades.
Caught up in all this change, the hops growers in Washington could well have gone the way of the saloons. Instead, thanks to a series of bad harvests in Europe during World War I that increased international demand for American hops, Washington doubled its hop acreage between 1920 and 1930. So when Prohibition ended, the hops vines were ready.
Prohibition changed home brewing as well. The raw materials for beer were in abundance, but brewing spirits in your own kitchen was still against the law, which stigmatized what for many families had been a way of life.
In 1979 California senator Alan Cranston introduced federal legislation to make home brewing legal again. President Jimmy Carter signed it into law and sparked a revolution. Stores started stocking and advertising beer-making materials. Well-traveled beer fans like Charlie Papazian, author of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, announced that there was more to the beverage than the few lagers America could find in its stores. In their own homes and kitchens, brewers rediscovered stouts, ales, and bocks. What people like Papazian were saying, and what the homebrewers discovered, was that it really wasn’t that hard to make a good beer, and that there was something out there to suit anyone’s tastes.
After honing their beer-making skills, many home brewers went into business, starting up the first modern microbreweries and boutique beer-making operations in the country. Again, the West Coast was a center of activity, particularly Seattle. In the early 1980s, Redhook’s founders, Gordon Bowker, who started Starbucks, and Paul Shipman, a former wine maker, were serving European-style brews in an old brick trolley car barn in Fremont. They noted that Seattleites were big tap-beer drinkers, and they understood the charm of a local beer. Their Trolleyman pub, a warm haven on a rainy day, tapped into that near-forgotten nostalgia for the old-world beer hall, where anyone, this time including women, could step inside, have a beer, and unwind.
A century after the first brewing boom in Washington, beer was back. Kalama’s Hart Brewing released its first Pyramid Pale Ale. Thomas Kemper started producing lagers out of Poulsbo in 1985. Hales Ales opened its doors in Colville.
And Seattle had its share: Noggins, the Pike Place Brewery, and the Big Time Brewing Company.
In 1989 James Bockemuehl and several business partners recreated the Fort Spokane Brewery. Housed in an old brick hotel in downtown Spokane, it drew customers eager to sample the award-winning Red Alt and Bulldog Stout. It was a lively time for beer in Spokane, says Bockemuehl. The Fort Spokane shared the city with at least three other microbreweries, and none of them were hurting for business.
But in the mid-’90s, microbreweries all over the state hit a plateau. Domestic consumption of beer had declined from a high point in the 1980s. Many of the early efforts, including the Fort Spokane project, did not survive. “It did produce some great beer, but did not have proper management,” says Bockemuehl, a financial advisor for whom opening a brewery was a side project.
In a recent annual report, Redhook’s m
anagers attribute the drop in business to changing tastes, citing concerns over health and safety, and attitudes towards beer of a generation born after World War II. Many had traded their craft beers for cosmopolitans and martinis. It may also be that those home brewers who started commercial breweries in the late 1980s didn’t have the stamina or the business plans to keep going. “They may have not had enough of a cushion for challenges,” says Arlen Harris, head of the newly formed Washington Beer Commission.
Like many of the craft brewers, Harris started home brewing in college. Little did he know his hobby would become a career. The notion of home brewing came to him after a visit to his uncle in Bellingham. “We made beer together and sampled some beer from a previous batch,” he says. “The flavors and aromas that filled the kitchen-it was just a blast.” Harris could make home brew in his college apartment for less than the cost of two cases of cheap beer, and it tasted better.
After graduating in 1993 with a liberal arts degree, he landed a bank job at “a desk in a back office staring at a computer screen all day.” When a friend with a brew pub in Anacortes called asking for help, Harris jumped at the offer. He worked eight years at the La Conner Brewing Company as assistant and then head brewer, before getting tagged by Rogue Brewery. As a member of the brewing community, Harris got a taste of the issues facing the craft breweries in the region. It’s a highly competitive market. First the beers have to compete with the mega-beer corporations, which dominate beer sales and flood the market with their products. Then the local breweries have to compete with a new wave of craft brews from Colorado, Oregon, and California. And lastly, beers from around the world have arrived on our supermarket shelves. More than 90 percent of the beer consumed in Washington comes from out of state.
In a way, that’s good news for the consumer, says Harris. Now more than ever, the consumer has the most choices. But it’s bad news for the small-time brewers. Something had to be done to give the modern braumeister a boost, says Harris. First, a Washington Brewers Guild was reorganized in 2000 to lobby the state legislature and local governments on behalf of the beer makers and build a community of brewers. Together the breweries work on issues like supporting a bill allowing brew pubs one additional retail location, and another that would strengthen laws regarding stolen metal, including kegs.
Harris has traded his life as a brewer for that of a lobbyist, moving to Olympia to work on behalf of the guild as its executive director. His efforts to unite the craft breweries in the state paid off in November, when, after polling the state’s 82 craft breweries, Washington Department of Agriculture approved a Washington Beer Commission to market for and promote Washington’s microbreweries.
The brewers are taking a leaf from the book of Washington’s wine industry, which started its own commission in the 1980s and has since developed an international reputation for high-quality wine. The experience of the wine industry shows the brewers that by joining together to market their beers, they can reach a wider audience, says Harris. In the 1970s Washington had no wine at all. Today it has more than 450 wineries and a worldwide reputation. Washington’s beer is just as unique and high in quality as its wines, says Harris, and it’s more affordable and was part of the landscape when the state was founded. “I think beer goes better with food than wine does,” says Arlen. “I might want a pinot noir with my tenderloin, but if I’m having oysters on the half shell, I want a pilsner from a local brewery.”
The beer commission is supported through a 10-cent fee on every barrel. The money will be well spent, says Harris. “First and foremost, we want to educate the people of Washington. When you go to the store, buy local beer. It’s better simply because it’s better. And it’s fresher than buying beer from out of state.”
With all the history and the past success of the microbreweries, why aren’t craft beers, particularly Washington’s, more popular?
Maybe it’s time people start thinking of beer as less of a blue-collar beverage reserved for sports events and the summer. It’s a treat, a regular feature at the dinner table, and part of our history.