MOXEE — The annual hop harvest is underway at CLS Farms near Moxee, and over the next month it will involve several hundred workers, around-the-clock effort and the near-constant hum of machinery and processing equipment.
It all started with a subtle touch of hop cones in a farmer's hand, and the scent that escaped when his fingers rubbed it.
"Eric (Desmarais) and Reid (Lundgren, production manager) go out to all the fields each day, pull a cone off the vine, rub it together, rip it open and smell it," said Claire Desmarais, the fifth generation of her family to farm hops in the Moxee area.
"They just know historically what it feels and smells like, and use their years of experience to know when it's time to start the harvest," she added.
That time was Thursday, Aug. 25, for the family owned-CLS Farms. The hop harvest is underway for many other growers across the Yakima Valley.
Bountiful harvest expected
More than anything, the Desmarais family and many other Yakima Valley hop growers are hopeful 2022 will be "normal" after the pandemic heavily affected working conditions for the 2020 harvest, and early-summer heat and late-summer wildfire smoke impacted last year's harvest.
"Last year, we had high temperatures that can really affect vine structure," Claire Desmarais said. "And smoke from the wildfires can affect the hops' aroma and can make harvesting conditions not as pleasant.
"We're hoping for a more normal harvest this year," she added. "The heat hasn't been too bad, and what (hot weather) we did have was late in the season, and the hops recover quickly."
Officials with the Washington Hop Commission, based in downtown Yakima's Liberty Building, believe 2022 could produce one of the state's largest harvests on record.
Maggie Elliot, science and communications director with the hop commission, said last year Washington experienced a record harvest of 84.6 million pounds, which accounted for 73% of the U.S. hop supply.
U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys of hop acreage show a decline of 3% from 2021, but yields are expected to improve slightly to 1,980 pounds per acre, Elliot said.
"Overall hop production in Washington state is predicted to drop 1% off last year's record and provide 84,011,400 pounds," she added. "If realized, this will be the second-largest harvest on record.
"While the cold, wet spring hindered hop growth early in the season, many varieties rebounded with the steady onset of the summer heat and producers are generally expecting yields close to average," Elliot said.
How the hops are harvested
Eric and Shelley Desmarais have owned the CLS Farms fields just south of Moxee for 26 years, and the Desmarais family has been farming hops in the area for well over 100 years, Shelley said. CLS is named for her and their two oldest daughters, Claire and Lauren, although youngest sister Vivienne, 12, also helps with the family business.
Giving a tour of the operations, Claire, 24, described the process of harvesting and the equipment needed to process the thousands and thousands of bines cut down each day. Her mother noted that Claire is the fifth generation of the Desmarais family involved in farming hops.
The Centennial variety is the first to be harvested, and the process begins with a bottom cutter slicing the bottom of the bine (another word for vine), then a top cutter coming in next, with the bines stacking up high in the beds of pickups. This process takes place around the clock, with lights on the top cutters helping during the overnight hours.
Alexandra Nowell, technical brewing adviser for CLS Farms, previously worked in the craft beer industry, most recently at Three Weavers Brewing in the Los Angeles area.
"Each variety (of hop) is treated differently ... it's an extremely hands-on experience," Nowell said. "This is my first year working full time on the harvest at the farm. Typically, I'm on the other side of hop selection."
"Alex has been coming to our farm for 10 years, and to have her experience is really fantastic," Shelley Desmarais said.
A few breweries, including Yakima Valley brewers such as Single Hill, will come to the farm and use fresh, or "wet," hops for their craft-brewed beer.
But most of the 2,000-plus acres of hops at CLS farms will go through picker machines, dry out in kilns and be shipped to brewers as 200-pound bales.
Turning up the heat
The pickups laden with hop bines deposit their loads in a couple of tall sheds that contain the picker machines. Workers hoist the individual bines onto hooks and they are taken on a conveyor belt though the picker machines, which begin the process of separating the hop cones from the leaves and stems.
One shed contains a picker that dates to the establishment of CLS farms on its current site in 2009 — "that's a bit before I was involved in operations," Claire joked — while the second, taller building was erected last year.
Conveyor belts from both picker buildings deposit the hop cones into the kiln, which has 11 different beds to dry out the hops before they are packaged into bales. The building is two stories high and about the length of two football fields.
Lundgren, the production manager, noted that the cones are heated at 130 degrees for times ranging from seven to 11 hours, with the goal of reducing their moisture level from 40-45% down to about 9%.
"If they're too wet, it can affect their aroma," Lundgren said.
He and Shelley Desmarais noted how the surge of craft brewing's popularity in the past 10 to 15 years has changed what brewers are looking for in their hops.
"Bitterness was the original reason for hops — preservation, essentially," Lundgren said. "Now, with craft beers being so huge, our farm and most other hop farms have flipped things around. It's 99% aroma varieties now.
"And the kiln is very important because it has the highest impact on quality — both positive and negative," he added.
Bales pile up quickly
Once hops reach the desired humidity level, they are cooled for about 40 minutes in the final kiln bed before they are shipped to the bailing area. They sit in a conditioning room for about 24 hours "to get the temperature as low as we possibly can," Lundgren said.
Two bales are stacked simultaneously in the bailing area, with taut white fabric holding back the 200 pounds of hops. Workers stitch the bales shut, and Lundgren uses a humidity gauge to make sure the moisture level remains close to 9% after the bailing process.
The facility generates about 35 to 40 bales an hour, or roughly 8,000 pounds of hops. With a harvest season lasting five to six weeks, the amount of hops harvested at CLS Farms can easily approach 1 million pounds.
Some breweries buy hops directly from the Moxee farm. Bales are also sold across the country and the world by hop suppliers.
The Yakima Valley provides about 25% of the world's hops, a fact the Desmarais family recites with pride.
"We see people from all over the world. They come here to select hops and to meet the growers," Shelley Desmarais said.
"It's brought a level of attention to our community that's very positive. It's positive for the whole Valley."