Whether it be a crisp and refreshing pilsner, a sweet or fruity wheat ale, the bitterness of an India Pale Ale (IPA), or another variety, there are a bevy of flavors that can satisfy a beer drinker’s taste buds.
And no matter if it’s a traditional commercial favorite or one of the many new creative craft beers concocted by microbreweries, the origin of a beer’s pronounced flavor can often be traced back to a hop farm in the Pacific Northwest.
As one of the main ingredients for beer, hops are plants that have various flavor characteristics and contribute bitterness, flavor to the alcoholic beverage.
"Different hops are grown in different regions, and if a hop is moved to a new region, it can change character," said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the non-profit Brewers Association, a trade association based in Boulder, Colorado.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 75 percent of commercial hop production in 2016 came from Washington state, with Oregon coming in second at 14 percent and Idaho third with 11 percent. In 2015, less than 3 percent of total hop production came from other states.
The bulk of hops are grown in the Northwest due to two primary factors: latitude and climate.
Washington state’s Yakima Valley, located east of the Cascade Mountains, is one of the most ideal locations for hop growing thanks to its hot and cool desert climate and the nearby Yakima River, which serves as an abundant source of irrigation.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley is where much of the hop production takes place in the state due to rich soil, mild air and abundant rainfall, according to the Oregon Hop Commission.
However, the Northwest isn’t the only location for hop growing, according to Jaki Brophy, communications director for Hop Growers of America, a trade association located in Moxee, Washington.
“Places like Michigan actually have been doing really well just because they have really high latitude which is an important factor for growing hops,” she said. “The latitude is what we’ve discovered is the key factor just because hops need really long days of sunlight.”
Brophy said there are hops being grown in places such as Florida and North Carolina, although hot and humid weather can bring the risk of disease, such as when downy mildew forms on the plants.
There are two primary varieties of hops. Alpha hops are used as a bittering agent early in the brewing stage, to help maintain a beer’s taste from becoming too sweet.
Aroma hops are incorporated at the end of the brewing process, or post-boiling phase, to capture their aroma better and flavor like citrus, tropical fruit or pine.
Hops are perennial plants which begin to emerge during the early to mid-spring. Harvests can get underway as early as mid-August for some aroma hops while alpha varieties can be harvested into October.
“We used to grow more alpha hops, but a lot of the popular aromas now are very conducive to this growing area,” Brophy said.
Oregon’s climate favors several alpha-type varieties and results in consistently larger-than-average harvests, the Oregon Hop Commission states. Moderate temperatures during the growing season also allow for high-quality aroma hops.
As craft brewers continue to sprout up throughout the country, the amount of hops harvested has grown, especially as IPAs become more popular.
Hop Growers of America states that one keg of a standard pilsner (1,984 ounces) uses only 0.31 of a pound of hops and a lager takes only 0.19 of a pound. However, an IPA can use 1 pound, while an imperial IPA (or double IPA) requires nearly 4 pounds.
The Northwest has varying climates that can benefit different hops. Oregon's climate is similar to Germany's hop-growing climate where it's a little bit cooler and wetter as opposed to Yakima's high desert conditions.
Oregon has more soft, floral and woody aroma hops, Brophy explained.
"It does depend on what you're growing, but the two different climates that we have here are good for different hops," Brophy said.
Traditionally farmers have produced about 70 percent alpha hops versus 30 percent aroma, but those numbers have flipped with aroma now accounting for the bulk of production.
"That's also because of the craft brewing that has totally changed the landscape of the U.S. hop industry," Brophy said.