Hop output lower with changes
in beer demand, distribution

After a chaotic year, Washington’s hop industry is looking for a win.

“Things are starting to get rocking and rolling again,” said Jaki Brophy, communications director for the Washington Hop Commission, following a year of Covid-19 restrictions, lower beer sales and punishment by Mother Nature.

Wildfires and windstorms took a toll on hop crops in Washington, and also nearby Oregon and Idaho, affecting overall output.

Washington produces about 75% of the country’s hops on about 41,000 acres, with the neighboring states making up most of the remainder.

All three were affected by windstorms and smoke from wildfires in 2020.

“If we were going to have that happen, which it does every once in a while, it was a good year for it to happen,” Brophy said.

It was a good year because hop growers had already tried to prepare for a lower demand, whether through reducing acreage planted or following a farming practice to string the hop bines differently to reduce their overall yield.

Washington’s average hop output fell more than 12% compared to 2019 due to these factors, but still increased its standing for the state’s top agriculture commodities, moving from seventh to sixth.

The Pacific Northwest contributed about 105 million pounds of hops to the world’s supply, with nearly all of those going to beer making. The 2020 crop for Washington yielded about 74 million pounds of hops valued around $442 million, down from $475 million in 2019.

Most of the nearly 41,000 acres of hops cultivated in 2019 were concentrated in the Yakima Valley.

“We don’t have that many growers compared to other industries,” Brophy said.

Labor intense

It’s an expensive crop to focus on and labor intensive as the hop bines must be hand-trained at least once a season to grow up the twine.

“You not only have to establish the entire hop yard, and all the infrastructure, poles and top wire, and everything else, but it’s fairly expensive to get your acreage established,” she said.

Hop Growers of America estimates it costs $13,588 per acre to produce mature, standard trellis hops using drip irrigation in the Pacific Northwest, citing updated figures from Washington State University.

Jessica Riel is a co-owner of Double R Ranch and a fourth generation hop grower. She works on a 1,000-acre farm started by her great-grandfather in 1945.

In 2021, Double R is focusing on Citra and Mosaic hops, two proprietary varieties sought for the aroma they lend to craft beers.

“We grow for domestic and international brewers,” said Riel, who also serves as vice president of the Washington Hop Commission. “We don’t always know where our product will end up.”

Beer industry effect

The U.S. grows 40% of the world’s hop supply, and the Yakima region contributes about one-third of that total from a limited number of growers.

An unknown number of small growers had to withdraw from the market due to the loss of on-premise sales created by the Covid-19 pandemic. That lowered demand for locally-produced hops.

“Ultimately, a lot of beer sales were down,” said Brophy, noting more people relied on drinks consumed at home and not at bars or restaurants. Those who benefited likely had already established their distribution.

For the rest, it put a squeeze on beer that could be bottled or canned, rather than poured from a tap, while also navigating an aluminum shortage.

“Things are just starting to pick back up now,” Brophy said. “We didn’t know what this would look like in the long term, but two years of impact was a conservative guess.”

Not knowing a clear demand from brewers led to a delay in decision-making for what variety to plant at Double R. One field was left idle for 2021.

“The timeframe on deciding what would be planted was far later than usual for us,” Riel said. “Typically we make those decisions after harvest the following year. All of us waited longer than usual to give brewers as much time as possible, as well as allow for the vaccine rollout.”

Financial hit

The hop harvest generally begins in late August for Washington and can run into the middle of October, while work continues year round on the perennial crop, with often the most labor intensive time in the spring.

To keep a consistent workforce, most Washington hop growers rely on the federal H-2A program for guest workers.

The state sources about 25,000 agriculture workers annually through this program, filling just under half of the workforce demand for seasonal workers, with the remainder supplied by migrant or local workers.

“The workers like the H-2A program because it pays high wages and gives them the dignity of legal presence,” said Dan Fazio, executive director of Wafla, formerly known as Washington Farm Labor Association. He calls it a “well-regulated program that works.”

Riel’s farm has used the program for the last six seasons.

Hop growers using the H-2A program experienced higher costs due to the need to distance workers during transport to the Yakima Valley and during operations.

“It was more challenging to keep up with state rules for temporary housing,” Riel said.

Additionally, many farms needed to hire additional workers to fill in for those unable to work due to Covid-19 exposure, and others to complete regular health screenings and sanitization.

“It was a lot of financial hits for growers, whether adjusting to the pandemic, hiring extra employees, allowing for extra housing to be compliant with health regulations, there was a lot going on,” Brophy said. “On top of that, people lost some of their crop as well. It was certainly a rough year and everyone’s glad to have 2020 in the rearview mirror.”

Popular varieties

The overall acreage of hops grown in Washington rose just under 4% in the most recent totals as growers planned for the increase prior to Covid-19, but then yields declined slightly.

“Prior to the craft beer boom, it was somewhat common to idle a field now and then,” Riel said. “But most farms have been adding acreage due to demand. And reduction might have been a labor issue in the past, but nowadays it’s directly related to Covid.”

As tastes change and market demands shift along with it, the popular hop varieties also adjust. Growers rebalance their crop by pulling out old varieties to replace with those currently in favor.

Last year’s most popular varieties in Washington were Citra, CTZ and Mosaic, some of more than 60 varieties grown in the U.S. Hops are mainly used for bitterness and aroma in the brewing process.

“You’re going to have brewers that are really interested in one and not the other,” Brophy said. “Just like Merlot and Chardonnay grapes are simply not the same.”

For Double R Ranch, Riel said the amount of rebalancing they performed was pretty similar to prior years, expecting about a 10% transition on an annual basis.

Hops tend to have a long storage life, depending on the product it’s turned into.

What’s in the field is usually dried in a kiln, though storing large amounts year to year can create a supply issue.

Riel’s family has a kiln on site and is wrapping up the largest building project the ranch has ever taken on, adding multiple packing facilities. She said they had acquired most materials prior to the pandemic, making it easier to finish the project closer to schedule as they look ahead to the 2021 harvest.

“Last year was difficult but people were able to make their way through it,” Brophy said. “It will be interesting to see what people have learned. There’s always some kind of lesson that’s still valuable after a crisis is over, even if we don’t know what that lesson is yet.”

After a chaotic year, Washington’s hop industry is looking for a win.

“Things are starting to get rocking and rolling again,” said Jaki Brophy, communications director for the Washington Hop Commission, following a year of Covid-19 restrictions, lower beer sales and punishment by Mother Nature.

Wildfires and windstorms took a toll on hop crops in Washington, and also nearby Oregon and Idaho, affecting overall output.

Washington produces about 75% of the country’s hops on about 41,000 acres, with the neighboring states making up most of the remainder.

All three were affected by windstorms and smoke from wildfires in 2020.

“If we were going to have that happen, which it does every once in a while, it was a good year for it to happen,” Brophy said.

It was a good year because hop growers had already tried to prepare for a lower demand, whether through reducing acreage planted or following a farming practice to string the hop bines differently to reduce their overall yield.

Washington’s average hop output fell more than 12% compared to 2019 due to these factors, but still increased its standing for the state’s top agriculture commodities, moving from seventh to sixth.

The Pacific Northwest contributed about 105 million pounds of hops to the world’s supply, with nearly all of those going to beer making. The 2020 crop for Washington yielded about 74 million pounds of hops valued around $442 million, down from $475 million in 2019.

Most of the nearly 41,000 acres of hops cultivated in 2019 were concentrated in the Yakima Valley.

“We don’t have that many growers compared to other industries,” Brophy said.

Labor intense

It’s an expensive crop to focus on and labor intensive as the hop bines must be hand-trained at least once a season to grow up the twine.

“You not only have to establish the entire hop yard, and all the infrastructure, poles and top wire, and everything else, but it’s fairly expensive to get your acreage established,” she said.

Hop Growers of America estimates it costs $13,588 per acre to produce mature, standard trellis hops using drip irrigation in the Pacific Northwest, citing updated figures from Washington State University.

Jessica Riel is a co-owner of Double R Ranch and a fourth generation hop grower. She works on a 1,000-acre farm started by her great-grandfather in 1945.

In 2021, Double R is focusing on Citra and Mosaic hops, two proprietary varieties sought for the aroma they lend to craft beers.

“We grow for domestic and international brewers,” said Riel, who also serves as vice president of the Washington Hop Commission. “We don’t always know where our product will end up.”

Beer industry effect

The U.S. grows 40% of the world’s hop supply, and the Yakima region contributes about one-third of that total from a limited number of growers.

Fresh cold beer glass in rustic setting with fresh hops

An unknown number of small growers had to withdraw from the market due to the loss of on-premise sales created by the Covid-19 pandemic. That lowered demand for locally-produced hops.

“Ultimately, a lot of beer sales were down,” said Brophy, noting more people relied on drinks consumed at home and not at bars or restaurants. Those who benefited likely had already established their distribution.

For the rest, it put a squeeze on beer that could be bottled or canned, rather than poured from a tap, while also navigating an aluminum shortage.

“Things are just starting to pick back up now,” Brophy said. “We didn’t know what this would look like in the long term, but two years of impact was a conservative guess.”

Not knowing a clear demand from brewers led to a delay in decision-making for what variety to plant at Double R. One field was left idle for 2021.

“The timeframe on deciding what would be planted was far later than usual for us,” Riel said. “Typically we make those decisions after harvest the following year. All of us waited longer than usual to give brewers as much time as possible, as well as allow for the vaccine rollout.”

Financial hit

The hop harvest generally begins in late August for Washington and can run into the middle of October, while work continues year round on the perennial crop, with often the most labor intensive time in the spring.

To keep a consistent workforce, most Washington hop growers rely on the federal H-2A program for guest workers.

The state sources about 25,000 agriculture workers annually through this program, filling just under half of the workforce demand for seasonal workers, with the remainder supplied by migrant or local workers.

“The workers like the H-2A program because it pays high wages and gives them the dignity of legal presence,” said Dan Fazio, executive director of Wafla, formerly known as Washington Farm Labor Association. He calls it a “well-regulated program that works.”

Riel’s farm has used the program for the last six seasons.

Hop growers using the H-2A program experienced higher costs due to the need to distance workers during transport to the Yakima Valley and during operations.

“It was more challenging to keep up with state rules for temporary housing,” Riel said.

Additionally, many farms needed to hire additional workers to fill in for those unable to work due to Covid-19 exposure, and others to complete regular health screenings and sanitization.

“It was a lot of financial hits for growers, whether adjusting to the pandemic, hiring extra employees, allowing for extra housing to be compliant with health regulations, there was a lot going on,” Brophy said. “On top of that, people lost some of their crop as well. It was certainly a rough year and everyone’s glad to have 2020 in the rearview mirror.”

Popular varieties

The overall acreage of hops grown in Washington rose just under 4% in the most recent totals as growers planned for the increase prior to Covid-19, but then yields declined slightly.

“Prior to the craft beer boom, it was somewhat common to idle a field now and then,” Riel said. “But most farms have been adding acreage due to demand. And reduction might have been a labor issue in the past, but nowadays it’s directly related to Covid.”

As tastes change and market demands shift along with it, the popular hop varieties also adjust. Growers rebalance their crop by pulling out old varieties to replace with those currently in favor.

Last year’s most popular varieties in Washington were Citra, CTZ and Mosaic, some of more than 60 varieties grown in the U.S. Hops are mainly used for bitterness and aroma in the brewing process.

“You’re going to have brewers that are really interested in one and not the other,” Brophy said. “Just like Merlot and Chardonnay grapes are simply not the same.”

For Double R Ranch, Riel said the amount of rebalancing they performed was pretty similar to prior years, expecting about a 10% transition on an annual basis.

Hops tend to have a long storage life, depending on the product it’s turned into.

What’s in the field is usually dried in a kiln, though storing large amounts year to year can create a supply issue.

Riel’s family has a kiln on site and is wrapping up the largest building project the ranch has ever taken on, adding multiple packing facilities. She said they had acquired most materials prior to the pandemic, making it easier to finish the project closer to schedule as they look ahead to the 2021 harvest.

“Last year was difficult but people were able to make their way through it,” Brophy said. “It will be interesting to see what people have learned. There’s always some kind of lesson that’s still valuable after a crisis is over, even if we don’t know what that lesson is yet.”

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