Photo by Jamie Bogner
Forty years ago, no one gave hops much of a second thought. Large brewers bought them from brokers who bought them from farms and ranches, and brewers remained, for the most part, isolated from the agricultural production of this crucial beer ingredient. But craft beer changed everything, and for at least the past decade, every brewer who’s anyone has made the trek to the Yakima Valley to walk the fields with growers in the shadow of Washington’s Cascade Range or to rub and sniff “brewers’ cuts” of one of the valley’s agricultural mainstays… hops.
Today, though, craft-beer consumers have more reason than ever to visit—this secret hideaway for the world’s brewers is becoming a bona fide tourist destination with breweries, restaurants, hotels, wineries, and retail shops to support the growing number of travelers who have succumbed to the allure of hops trellises (and vineyards, wineries, and orchards) spread throughout this high desert valley two and a half hours southeast of Seattle.
Hops history runs deep in the valley, and many of today’s farms are fifth or sixth generation affairs that trace their own history back to the 1860s and 1870s when Charles Carpenter brought commercial cultivation of hops to Yakima. Today, the Carpenters are still farming hops in the valley, and another Carpenter is chief operating officer of YCH Hops, one of the largest hops dealers in the world. Hops are a family affair.
Experiencing that commitment to hops, community, and to the valley where they grow so well is something that every self-respecting brewer or beer lover should do at least once in his/her life, and here’s a plan for making the most of your visit.
Yakima’s historic train station was once home to a true pioneer of American craft brewing—Bert Grant’s Yakima Craft Brewing. Anyone who came of beer age from the late eighties through the mid- nineties may remember the iconic Grant’s standard-bearing beers. Yakima still holds Grant in high regard, and one of the reasons Hop Nation Brewing Founder Ben Grossman bought an old hops warehouse across the street from that old station is its place in Yakima brewing history. Hop Nation continues the ode to Grant with their GSA—an acronym for “Grossman’s Scottish Ale” if any attorneys happen to be reading this—based on Grant’s original recipe (with a few tweaks to make it their own). From the cleanly executed weisse to the crisp Kölsch and pleasantly dry dunkel, Hop Nation’s take on styles from around the world is worth the visit.
Sports Center bar and restaurant is a Yakima institution, and for the entire month of September it’s a veritable social hub of the brewing world. After the day’s hops selection is over, you’ll find brewers from across the country kicking back beers and enjoying each others’ company. Don’t sleep on the food menu—the burgers are enormous, but the seared ahi is surprisingly good for the landlocked locale.
The mountain modern style of Cowiche Canyon Kitchen & Icehouse is as visually stunning as their food is well prepared. A solid tap list of local breweries (including experimental beers from the Haas in-house brewery) complements a menu that’s equal parts comfort and creative, but focused on locally sourced and fresh. For a place to stay with character and connection, book a room at the Hotel Maison. Owned by the Morrier family (who also own the Morrier Ranch hops farm), the new boutique hotel is situated in a gut-renovated turn-of-the-century Masonic Lodge, and you’ll often find family patriarch Joe Morrier walking the lobby, greeting guests, and still sweating the details.
Newcomer Redifer Brewing Company features a nano-scale brewing system tucked into a corner of the modern taproom. Expect beers that are surprisingly safe for such a creatively designed space.
On the other side of the block, Berchman’s Brewing’s tiny taproom features an array of keg and bottle-conditioned beers. Don’t look too hard for the brewhouse—while the family owns the building (and has for the better part of the last century), they brew offsite on a 2bbl nano system.
If your goal is to drink like a local, then a stop at The Beer Shoppe is in order. Enjoy one of their hand-pulled cask ales or a selection from their well-curated draft list heavy with PNW and West Coast standouts, and grab some to-go beer from the cooler for your hotel room later.
If you’d like to take home some of the valley’s famous product, head over to the homebrewing clubhouse at Yakima Valley Hops. While their primary business is ecommerce (selling a wide variety of hops in smaller quantities for homebrewers, brewpubs, and nano brewers), the retail outpost situated among the fruit warehouses of 1st Street is designed as a kitschy ode to Rainer Beer and Yakima brewing history. They feature everything from the latest gear from Blichmann and Ss Brewtech to the widest variety of hops you’re likely to find at any homebrew shop. Take a peek at their conference room (with built-in bar) and their upstairs concert/party space—the sprawling complex is loaded with cool.
Whether or not you consider yourself a cider fan, Tieton Cider Works is a can’t-miss stop on the itinerary of any fan of fermented beverages. Cidermaker Marcus Roberts and team have crafted some exquisite examples of contemporary American cider that avoid the cloying clichés so common in the genre. It helps that they have a range of heirloom bittersweet and bittersharp apples from their own orchard to press and work with. But even when they’re working with standard dessert apple varieties, their manipulation of everything from yeast to tank geometry yields a level of complexity and drinkability that’s rarely found in today’s cider.
While it’s common to find wineries located among the vines growing their own estate grapes, it’s almost unheard of to locate a brewery in the middle of a hops field. But that just makes Moxee’s Bale Breaker Brewing that much more special. Hops farms are a generational affair in the valley, and Bale Breaker was a great way for the family of Loftus Ranch hops farm to keep the kids involved in the family business. Fourth-generation Meghann (Smith) Quinn and her husband Kevin Quinn manage the business side of the brewing enterprise, while brother Kevin Smith heads up the brewing operation and brother Patrick Smith is next in line to lead the hops farm. In a few short years, they’ve grown to almost 25,000 bbls per year selling in Washington State alone, but there’s nothing quite like the experience of sitting on their patio, surrounded by the Loftus Ranch hops trellises, and drinking one of their many hops-forward beers.
Naches and Cowiche
Enjoy a sunset over the Western foothills from the back patio of Bron Yr Aur Brewing in Naches. Order one of their creative pizzas, grab an outdoor table, and soak up the glow of the surrounding “golden hills.”
Cowiche Creek Brewing opened their brewery and taproom in early 2017, and their YPA (Yakima Pale Ale, of course) is now found on taps throughout the valley. But their purpose-built brewery out in the hills between Cowiche and Weikel offers a relaxing space for enjoying a beer in the shadow of their very own hops trellises.
Lower Valley, Toppenish, and Sunnyside
The Yakima Valley is a big place, with distinct growing areas. For a fun afternoon trip and a blast from the western past, head south to the lower valley, through the vineyards, apple orchards, and fields of mint, down to the town of Toppenish. More than seventy outdoor murals tell a broad historical story of the town and the agriculture that supports it. While you’re there, pop into the American Hop Museum for a quick history lesson on the evolution of commercial hops farming over the past two centuries.
If you get hungry on the way to or from Toppenish, make a stop at Hoptown Pizza in Donald for local favorite wood-fired pies sprinkled with local Cascade hops. While their taproom had yet to open when we visited, Varietal Brewing’s beer was already on tap and in demand around the valley thanks to an alternating proprietorship agreement with another local Yakima brewery. Their taproom down in Sunnyside will be home base for their creative brewing exploration into mixed fermentation, sour and wild beers, and more.
The Best Time To Visit
The nature of hops crops means that the ideal time to see hops on the bines is July, August, and September. Earlier than that, and the trellises are bare. After that first week of October, the fields are completely harvested and bare. There is still plenty to do in Yakima Valley year-round, but if experiencing the hops fields is your goal, you’ll want to time it accordingly. Once harvest starts (typically the last week of August), you’ll find hotels get booked as the brewing industry descends on the valley, so make reservations ahead of time to get the best deals.
The highlight of Yakima’s calendar is the yearly Fresh Hop Festival at the end of September. The beer festival features fifty-plus brewers from around the country and the world who’ve brewed special fresh hops beers with hops from the Yakima Valley, many only made for and served at the festival. Almost 9,000 festival-goers descend on Yakima for the special celebration.
But no matter when you choose to visit the Yakima Valley, there are always beers and breweries to enjoy, beautiful wineries and cideries to explore, and outdoor activities to burn off those extra beer calories. It’s a special place, steeped in brewing history, that should be on every beer traveler’s bucket list.
(support for our visit was provided by Yakima Valley Tourism)