Is this the way to Amarillo?
Ryan Huffman, brewer and hop head of note, recently started his own brewery Naked Face Brewing, but while working as a hop merchant for Africa Hops experienced a dream trip to a mecca for hop lovers. He delves into the path that lead to this pinnacle moment for many who love and care about beer.
I stepped out of the Seattle-Tacoma international airport and the cool air hit my face. Butterflies swirled in my stomach with the thought of my trip to come. Shangri-La for true hop heads: a visit to the main American hop growing region during harvest time. Yakima! I reflected on my long and strange trip to get here.
I grew up in IPA heaven: San Diego California. I was surrounded by the joys of hop-forward beers from the likes of Stone, Ballast Point and Ale Smith among many others. The scene helped inspire me to start brewing my own beer at home: the greatest hobby ever invented. Over the years I would visit the breweries and chat with some of the brewers. Talk would turn from brewing to hops and I would hear about their trips up to Yakima for the harvest, when they would choose the hops they wanted to brew with for the next year. I always dreamed of experiencing the selection and harvest time myself. Love threw me a serious curve ball and I ended up leaving San Diego behind, moving instead to Johannesburg with my South African wife. It was a new start and after 10 years of home brewing and almost 300 batches of beer under my belt, I was determined to find a career in the craft beer sector. And that’s how I became a hop merchant with Africa Hops. Each year, the parent companies, Simply Hops and Barth-Haas offer an amazing opportunity to their clients: a paid-for trip to the hop fields of the USA.
Years after those hop-forward conversations, I was finally headed to Yakima. After a 30-hour journey, we hit the ground running with a visit to The Holy Mountain Brewing Company to meet the organisers and the 20-or-so other brewers from all over Europe. It’s time for a much-needed beer. I quickly realise that there will be plenty of beer, with visits to further breweries and a bar boasting more than 100 taps on the agenda before hitting the hay on that first night. The next morning, nursing slightly sore heads, we piled onto a bus and started the 21⁄2- hour drive east to Yakima. It was fascinating to see the climate and the landscape change as we drove. The mountains block most of the rain from getting to eastern Washington so as we passed by the peaks, the green trees were replaced by a desert-like landscape. We dropped our bags at our hotel then headed out to Virgil Gamache Farms to see where Amarillo is grown.
As we took the tour, farm owner Darren Gamache told us the story of how some of their growers found a wild hop plant growing on their property back in 1997. The plant was given the decidedly un-catchy name of VGXP01. The hop growers learnt that the aroma of this new hop exactly matched the flavour in beer once used – one of only four known varieties that boasts this distinction. They also found that the time of year they harvested the hop would greatly affect the flavour and aroma the hop would produce. Early harvesting produced a candy-like, lemony flavour; harvesting mid-season gave more pronounced grapefruit and orange notes, while the late harvested cones had a mixture of garlic and onion for a danker profile.
They decided to market this new hop under the name Amarillo. The farm was started in 1913 and many of the original buildings are still in use, although they’re now fitted with new equipment. I will never forget Darren taking us to a room filled with freshly harvested hops and seeing the conveyor belt drop hundreds of pounds of cones in to a room to dry. The smell and sight were a sensory overload and I couldn’t help but imagine all the great beer that would eventually be brewed using their product. Outside we saw the massive tractors bringing in the newly cut hop vines to be sorted by hefty machines. The buzz and constant motion of this massive equipment was awe-inspiring. Darren told us how they had to build these massive sorting machines for the farm since they were producing most of the Amarillo in the world and they needed to harvest within such a short time frame each year. They have just four weeks to complete the harvest and even over that time the flavours of Amarillo begin to change. Seeing the massive warehouses where they kiln the hops to dry them to the right moisture content was amazing. It was all I could do not to jump in for a quick hop swim.
After the tour we assembled in the conference room for our first sniff test of hops. The sniff test – also known as hop-rubbing –is when you take dried hop cones and rub them in your palms exposing the oils in the hops then bring your palms up to your nose and inhale. This gives you an idea of the aroma and flavour the hops may bring to the finished beer. On the sniffing menu were Amarillo cones from five different farms: two from Yakima, two from elsewhere in Oregon and finally a test that had just come from a farm in Germany. Virgil Gamache owns the rights to grow Amarillo and they issue a limited number of licences to allow other farms to cultivate the hop. The owner of the farm asked us to test all the samples and give him some feedback.
It was amazing to see the difference in the aromas of each sample of Amarillo. This was a prime example of “terroir”, a term we more
commonly associate with wine. The next day we were lucky enough to visit
the experimental hop fields of the Hop Breeding Company, better known as HBC. HBC is located on a Haas family farm where they are constantly experimenting with new hops, cross breeding over 300 new varieties. We walked among the towering hop vines and picked off the occasional cone from some of the new test varieties, sniffing and looking out for something that captured our attention. Pretty soon our hands turned yellow-
green from the hop oils mixed with the yellow lupulin powder, our heads spinning from all the different aromas. Our last stop was the chance to see
the first hop vines of both Mosaic and Citra, which were still in the breeding field. What an honour to be able to see where these influential American hops began. To toast the experience, we went back to the testing plant on site to sample some beer brewed with a few of their test varieties – the ones that are getting closer to market. I particularly enjoyed the aroma and flavour of HBC 586 which had a strong fresh peach smell to it. The following morning, we visited the Haas warehousing and production plant.
They showed us one of the huge temperature- controlled warehouses that held the hop bales until they were due to be processed into pellets or CO2 extract. We were able to go into the plant, where they explained how they process the hops from bales of leaf hops to the T-90 pellets many of us are so familiar with usin today. They showed us the new process the developed to create the BBC pellet that contains less vegetable matter and increased hop oils per pellet for an even bigger hop aroma and flavour.
After the tour of the plant we were taken in to the conference room for selection. They had set up samples from many different varieties. We were then asked to sniff test the hops from all the different farms and all of us would vote on which farm’s hops boasted the best aroma. The winner would make it onto Simply Hops’ shopping list for the following year. We sat down to sniff 10 different hop varieties, eac with samples from seven or eight different farms. They had a great stash of craft beer in the fridge to enjoy while we were sniffing an taking notes. I looked around and reflected
on how I was the only representative for Africa, and I was helping to determine the hops that many of the craft brewers on our continent would be using to make all the great beer we enjoy all year. What a huge responsibility. The head of marketing gave us a presentation on the current state of the US and global hop markets, where we could see how the craft beer industry had shifted the focus of hops grown. Hop farmers used to specialise in high alpha acid hops, sought after by the big macro breweries
to use for bittering, but today it’s all about the exciting new aroma varieties that the craft beer industry craves. He said that the whole valley has been injected with a new excitement over the rise of the craft beer scene and the amazing flavours brewers were creating with their product. And just like that, the trip was over. As I prepared for my flight out of Seattle, I
thought about how lucky I was to have this amazing experience. I met so many cool brewers from around the world and was able to pick their brains for tips on opening up my own craft brewery in Johannesburg (Naked Face Brewing). I can’t wait to use these amazing hops that I helped pick out in my beers this year.
This article was first published in On Tap Magazine. South Africa’s first dedicated beer publication is a quarterly magazine aimed at craft brewers, home brewers, beer fanatics and those just beginning to dip their proverbial toe into the mash tun