SUNNYSIDE – The Lower Yakima Valley’s hops harvest coincides with the end of summer and the beginning of fall, around the time football kicks off its season and the competitive demand for savory flavor ingredients by craft and larger breweries provide all twelfth man fans reason to cheer.
For the past three weeks, open bed cargo trucks filled with freshly cut and fragrant hop bines have been transporting the herbaceous perennial plants up and down country back roads to cone sorting and drying operations around the clock.
Keeping pace with mother nature’s ever-changing weather conditions and balancing the optimum growing maturity for aromatic quality, Rick Sauve and his son Erik are part of a multi-generation family farm, Sauve & Son Farms of Mabton, which continues to game plan for long term growth.
“Brewers are our customers. They have a tendency to shift varieties based on the trends of what their customers want, the beer drinker,” Rick Sauve strongly voiced while his crew prepared to change from Citra to Ekuanot hops processing.
Their farm was started by Rick’s grandfather, Louis in 1938 and is one of 11 Yakima Chief Hops grower-owners in the Washington area.
“Every year, you’re either expanding a variety or contracting one maybe if you find out that there’s too much of one in the ground and planting new ones,” Sauve explained.
Chief Supply Chain Officer Steve Carpenter described how YCH is a global supplier of premium quality hops and are committed to ensuring loyal customer service by providing detail product accountability and transparent information, and stringent quality control methods.
“Our customers like that we’re grower-owned. That resonates with a lot of our customers, Carpenter added. “They can come out for selection, pick their hops and then immediately they want to come out to the farms to meet the grower and see what’s going on there.”
Since they began in the 1980s, their primary goal has been to create a culture of strong relationships and farming innovation by producing sustainably grown hops products and brewing solutions, he proudly acknowledged.
“This young consumer, this millennial generation, it’s not just enough to try a new beer. They want to know the story behind it and who grew it. That’s part of our job, to tell that story. Our mission here at YCH is to connect family hops farms with the world’s finest breweries, and this is the best time of year to do that,” Carpenter communicated.
During harvest time they hire about 300 seasonal employees to bring in the crop and begin to pelletize about 75-80 percent of the entire hop product for cold storage with a January target date for completion. The rest is for extract, another hop product YCH produces in Sunnyside.
According to Carpenter, the craft beer segment continues to grow, however, not like in recent years when the industry was experiencing 15 to 18-percent growth. He pointed out that 72-74 percent of all U.S. hops are grown in Yakima County. YCH controls about one-third of that overall market share.
“We’re kind of unique in this area. Normally, you can plant a new hop and expect to get about 75 percent of a full yield during the first year. This year was a little different because of the really late spring we had. So, we’re seeing first year crops off from that average, but the mature hops are pretty normal,” Sauve reported.
The 4-6 percent growth has centered around hop forward beers such as the India Pale Ales (IPAs) and Pale Ales, along with those styles of craft beer is growing at a faster rate and the hop demand is bigger than the annual industry volume which is down by 1 percent overall.
Following graduation from Washington State University with a B.S. degree in agriculture in 2017, Erik Sauve returned home to the family business to work alongside his dad.
The son also shares in the enthusiasm and motivation for producing excellent quality hops ingredients that he and friends Austin and Tyler Carpenter and Spencer Klein from other YCH farms started hanging out together and making their own craft brews.
“We came up with this crazy idea this summer to brew a fresh hop beer. We used all fresh green hops that haven’t been dried. We used some Simcoe and Citra from our farm, and Sabro and experimental hops their farms. We did that the first Friday of harvest and brewed that up. So that should be ready in the next couple of weeks,” Erik Sauve announced.
U.S. Craft breweries produced 25.6 million barrels of beer in 2018, an increase of almost 4 percent over 2017 from data compiled by the Brewers Association. The number of craft breweries continues to increase and grew by almost 12 percent to 7,346. Their 13 percent 2018 volume share translates to $27.6 billion, a 7 percent growth from 2017.
“We’re going for freshness. The fresh wet hop smell is really distinctive, especially with the varieties we chose to use. We’re pretty excited for it but nervous because we’ve never done one before,” the Cougar alumni revealed.
The reason why the craft brewery segment is vital to hops farmers is because they typically use 2-4 pounds of hops for their beer which means they utilize more than half the hops produced.
“Fresh hop beers have become a huge hit within recent years with brewers across the nation. They make trips multiple times a year coming out to numerous farms to select fresh hops for these distinctive aromas and flavors. It’s exciting for us and fun to meet these people and build relationships with,” Erik Sauve expressed.