You’ve been waiting in line all morning for the release of a new, juicy New England IPA. It’s double dry hopped with Citra, Amarillo, and Mosaic. Finally, you reach the front of the line and buy your cans. You open one. You pour the hazy, aromatic liquid into your favorite glass. It tastes absolutely delicious — soft with a slight bitter bite. If you ask the brewer where these heavenly hops came from, the answer is most likely Yakima, Washington.
Last year, Yakima produced 75% of the country’s hops, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Every fall, breweries from around the world descend on the city to sample the fresh harvest and pick out their hop allocations. Eager and excited brewery owners make the pilgrimage to the holy city of hops to chat with farmers and brokers about which hops are performing best, and what the exciting new hop is. During a recent conversation with Root + Branch Brewing’s Anthony Sorice, he described his first trip to Yakima for harvest like a religious experience, holding fresh hops in his hand, inhaling the enticing fumes. The best brewers in the country anxiously await the next chance to sample the hop bounty.
But strangely enough, Yakima’s own beer scene is just getting off the ground. There are only a handful of breweries serving nearly 94,000 inhabitants. Compare that to Asheville, which has a population of about 90,000 and a significantly more established scene.
Even stranger still, Yakima has a rich beer history, started by Bert Grant, who more or less paved the way for the America brewpub model. But breweries in Yakima have only recently started taking off.
Yakima Craft Brewing was the first craft brewery in the area, opening in 2007, and since then several have sprung up, mostly with a focus on West Coast IPAs. Bale Breaker, a short drive from Yakima’s downtown, excelled in the style with Top Cutter IPA and Field 41 Pale Ale. Top Cutter is one of the best selling beers in the state and has become a symbol of Yakima hops.
Kevin Quinn, one of the owners and brewers of Bale Breaker, showed me around the brewery, explaining the history of the company. Quinn’s wife, Meghann, is Bale Breaker’s Business Manager and co-owner. Her family, which runs Loftus Farms, have been hop farmers in the region for generations. However, that doesn’t mean Kevin gets all the hops he wants.
“We have a contract with YCH Hops, who in turn work with my father-in-law at Loftus,” Kevin explained. “They own the hops in the ground. So I couldn’t say, ‘Hey can I get some Citra?’ But it helps us understand the whole process. And it’s a cool part of our story.”
Top Cutter and Field 41 are two stellar beers and excellent examples of the West Coast style, and the brewery hasn’t bought into the “haze craze” that seems to be sweeping the rest of the nation.
“We’ve made a few one-off hazy beers, and we’ll experiment with the style for festivals and special events,” Kevin said. “But I don’t think we’ll add something like that to our normal rotation.”
And why should they? They’ve dialed in their style and continue to innovate within their hop program. They were one of the first in the region to invest heavily in canning their beer and have expanded distribution across the state. They haven’t had to adapt because people buy what they sell.
But there are some folks in Yakima eager to take advantage of the national proclivity for juice. Wandering Hop, one of the newer breweries in Yakima, has embraced the style. When the taproom is open, the space quickly fills with a mix of hop heads young and old.
Unlike the meticulously crafted breweries of the East Coast, Wandering Hop feels casual, with more focus on the liquid than the accouterment. They don’t can, and their beer is poured into clear plastic cups. As I chatted with Nathan, the brewer and founder, a happy customer smiled and pointed at his plastic cup. “This is delicious,” he said. Nathan laughed and thanked him.
“For a lot of locals, this is the first time they’re trying this style,” Nathan explains. “They’ve had plenty of IPAs and they know all about hops. But they haven’t had this.”
Later on in the evening, Nathan shared how excited he was to introduce lactose into his beer. When he does, he’ll be the first in Yakima to have done it.
“It’s going to blow their minds,” Nathan joked.
Joining me at Wandering Hop was Joe Daily, one of the co-founders of Valley Brewing Co. At the time of writing, Valley is Yakima’s newest craft brewery and has been producing delicious IPAs, dabbling in the East Coast style with one-off’s like The Juice Got Loose. Joe, along with Valley’s other two co-founders Korey Shroyer and Ethan Frenzel, built the taproom by hand right down the street from Yakima Craft, the progenitor of the Yakima craft beer scene.
Despite being the new kids on the block (literally), Valley has fit right into the Yakima beer community. They’ve collaborated with their neighbors down the street on a chocolate stout. Many of the older beer drinkers in the city have taken to Valley, testing out the new IPAs before becoming haze bois and gurls themselves. Locals, who have been used to the West Coast style, have embraced the innovations of Joe, Korey, and Ethan. Valley represents the potential of the beer scene in the Yakima Valley region.
As new breweries open and old breweries continue to innovate, Yakima’s beer scene grows stronger. The Yakima Valley region hasn’t yet hit the caliber of more established scenes like Asheville, Chicago, or Denver, but there’s no reason that Yakima couldn’t become a beer destination.