Climate & Beer
Author: Caitlyn Kennedy
When you think of wine country in the United States, you probably think of Northern California. And you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that climate has a major influence on grapes, the main ingredient in wine—not to mention a winery’s bottom line. But what region would you consider “beer country”? And how do climate extremes affect some of the key ingredients for making our nation’s most popular alcoholic beverage?
Most of us know that the key ingredient in beer is some kind of fermented grain: that’s where the alcohol comes from. But when it comes to all the different tastes and aromas that different kinds of beer have, the hops are just as important. The flower buds of the hops plant are added to the brew to impart bitterness, unique flavors, and aroma to the finished product.
And when it comes to where the hops are, U.S. beer country is the Northwest. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 73% of our nation’s hops are grown in the state of Washington, with the remainder roughly split between Oregon and Idaho.
Washington’s primary hops-growing area is the Yakima Valley, located in the Yakima River basin on the eastern (lee) side of the Cascade Mountains. The lower portions of the valley are fairly desert-like, except where the Yakima watershed extends high up into the snowy Cascades. Most of the river runoff is derived from winter precipitation stored as snowpack.
Historically the region produced about 70% alpha (bitter) varieties of hops and 30% aroma types. In an email interview, Ann George, Executive Director of the Washington Hop Commission, said the growing demand for aroma varieties in recent years has completely reversed the acreage mix: in 2015, it was nearly 70% aroma and dual-purpose varieties. Craft breweries like these varieties because they contribute lower levels of alpha (bittering) to beer, but are high in other flavor compounds that contribute unique characteristics (citrus, herbal, floral) to each beer.
The majority of these flavorful varieties have been developed specifically for the Yakima climate, with better heat tolerance than traditional European-style aroma hops. But last summer, Washington’s Yakima Basin—one of the most productive hops-growing regions in the world—saw unusually warm temperatures and intensifying dry conditions. How did the hops stand up to the heat?
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