One of agriculture’s many challenges is that after the hard work of planting, growing and harvesting a crop is accomplished, someone still needs to buy it.
Washington state and the Yakima Valley in particular are among the world’s top hop-producing areas, and the sights, sounds and smells of harvest are in the air this month.
But with stockpiles of hops remaining from the COVID economic slowdown, this year’s hop harvest might fall a bit short of what was produced before the pandemic.
Reggie Brulotte, president of Brulotte Farms near Toppenish, summed up this year’s hop harvest by saying “the crop’s decent, the market’s not,” with the latter requiring area growers to reduce their acreage planted this season.
“We’re still kind of oversupplied and we’re working down from COVID,” Brulotte said Friday during an interview at Brulotte Farms’ office and processing facility.
“When things were shutting down during COVID, a lot of the breweries weren’t producing as much (beer). Sales at the grocery stores went up, but restaurants were shut down, the taprooms were shutting down, there weren’t concerts and sporting events,” she added. “There were hops that were contracted for but not used, so we’re still working through that excess inventory.”
The oversupply of hops is a global issue that prompted reductions from hop growers across the state, said Maggie Elliot, science and communications director with the Washington Hop Commission.
“There is a long inventory of aroma hops in the global supply chain,” Elliot said. “The large decrease in on-premises sales of beer curtailed the demand of hops throughout the pandemic, which has presented a surplus in hop stocks.
“This year hop producers in Washington state reduced acreage about 8 percent to accommodate the oversupply,” she added. “The industry will track this year’s harvest volume, the quantity remaining in stocks, and balance with projected demand to determine if further reductions will be carried forward next year.”
Production estimate for 2023
While market conditions are still recovering from COVID, growing conditions and production estimates for 2023 are solid, according to both local reports and the Yakima-based statewide hop commission.
In a statement issued earlier this week, Elliot said USDA pre-harvest estimates predict a 75.2 million-pound hops harvest for Washington, which would be a 4.7 percent increase from last year’s production.
These numbers would overcome some extreme spring weather conditions, Elliot told the Yakima Herald-Republic.
“The month of April was among the coldest on record in the Yakima Valley, and May hastened unusually elevated temperatures,” she said. “While this sharp reversal precipitated uncommon early and split bloom in several varieties, conditions through the summer remained strong with minimal pest pressure and growers are expecting average yields this season at about 1,920 pounds per acre.”
Elliot said in 2021 Washington experienced a record harvest of 84.6 million pounds, which accounted for 73 percent of the U.S. hop supply.
Brulotte said her crews, totally roughly 200 employees, have been harvesting for more than two weeks and are expected to continue into the early part of October.
“It’s about a 30-to-35-day harvest, if all goes well,” she said. “It makes for a long month. Seven days a week we run two crews, a day and night shift. The crop looks like it’s coming in very well.”
Hop farming a family business
The Yakima Valley contributes 30 percent of the world’s hop supply, the Washington Hop Commission reports, and the 1,500 acres of Brulotte Farms have been part of the area’s production for six generations.
Reggie Brulotte said her grandfather, Roland, bought the current farm located southwest of Heritage University in 1944. Reggie has been leading her family’s farm for more than 30 years.
“I’m the third generation in this location, with the fourth coming on,” Brulotte said. “Our family’s been in hops several generations before that, so I’m a sixth-generation hop farmer.”
Brulotte’s original career plans didn’t include hop farming, she said. She went to school at the University of Washington over in Seattle, and came back between her sophomore and junior year to work on the farm.
“I went back to school, came back the next year and that’s when I decided to work on the family farm,” she added. “I finished up my chemistry degree, came back in 1988 and I’ve been here ever since then.
She said it’s nice to see younger generations returning to farm, and she is encouraged by the growing number of daughters involved in their families’ hop operations.
“One of the big things I’ve seen changing is the number of daughters coming back into the farm. That was not a thing, that was not really done when I was growing up,” she added. “My sister and I weren’t encouraged to be part of the farm. My brother was going to be the one who was farming, but then plans change — and now I’m farming.”
While Brulotte is mostly involved on the business side of her family farm, she is well-versed in the agricultural and scientific issues of hop farming, too, through her involvement in various industry boards. She was on the Washington Hop Commission for 22 years and then the hop research council for 12 years.
The “fourth generation coming up” she referred to is her adopted son, Austin Cuellar, who has worked alongside Brulotte for the past seven years.
“I had a different life than most, and Reggie gave me the opportunity at a young age to show what I was capable of,” Cuellar said.
“For the last seven years, I’ve dedicated myself to this place, and her, and she has decided to adopt me as her own, basically, and take me under her wing and teach me what she knows,” he added. “She’s giving me the opportunity to carry on her legacy and her family’s legacy. It’s not my own name, but I’m proud to carry her name on.”
A popular pineapple-flavored hop
Part of the science of hop farming is creating and discovering new varieties — whether planned or by accident.
At Brulotte Farms, new hop varieties have been found growing by irrigation canals (“we fondly called that one Edgebank,” Reggie Brulotte said) and by cloning cuttings off an existing plant.
The latter method helped produce the BRU-1 hop variety, which adds “a truly unique and characteristic pineapple flavor to beer,” said Corrie Van Oostrum, associated marketing manager for John I. Haas Inc. of Yakima.
Haas is the exclusive distributor of BRU-1, Van Oostrum told the Herald-Republic. “Haas provides brewers with the option to purchase BRU-1 in traditional whole cone and pellet formats, and we have incorporated it into our latest innovative, advanced hop product lines: Lupomax concentrated hop pellets and Spectrum flowable dry hop product for cold-side addition.”
Brulotte said her farm sells most of its hops through distributors or dealers including Haas and Yakima Chief Hops, although some are sold directly to Anheuser-Busch and its craft brewers, such as Elysian.
The BRU-1 hop is delivered to Elysian for its Mother Pig fresh hop ale, she noted. But it was first delivered to Haas for testing.
“We were looking for a new variety,” Brulotte said. “We had some seeds that we planted and we looked at several thousands of different seedlings until we narrowed it down to about four advanced lines that looked like they had some good production.
“(BRU-1) we took to Haas and they did a test brew with it. We’ve been told there’s a 1 in 1,000 chance where these things are going to take off,” she said.
“Well, they contacted us and they said, ‘Do you have any more of this? We think you’ve found the 1 in 1,000.’ They really liked it, so we entered into a partnership with them to promote BRU-1. That was six or seven years ago.”
Today, about 15 percent of Brulotte Farms’ production is of BRU-1, with Tahoma, Citra, Mosaic and Cascade among their other popular varieties.
“Everyone’s looking for a way to distinguish themselves in the market,” Brulotte said. “We try to focus on quality and pushing our new variety, promoting BRU-1.”