I was going to attempt a lyrical beginning, about how the sun softly snuggles into the hills a little sooner each day, now that the hops are off the vine.
But then I learned that hops don’t actually grow on vines. Meaning, hops are not tendrilic, woody shoots that groove and move by touch and feel, say, like grapes or peas. Hops, it turns out, are heliotropic, curling greedily towards their precious source of energy, each day using their crafty little hookers to claw up, up, and up, on their doomed little burst towards the sun.
I learned that while sitting on a bar stool during a fascinating dissertation from a local hop geneticist. In Yakima, you see, one is apt to stumble into a hop geneticist on a bar stool. On a Monday. He was not always a hop geneticist, of course. He was once a corn and rice geneticist, and in a previous life he worked on such humanitarian endeavors as the Golden Rice Project. He moved to Yakima after falling in love with hops. Not because he loved beer, mind you. But because he was enchanted by hops’ heliotropic ascension, which he recognized as an “evolutionary mechanism for climbing”. No kidding.
I on the other hand loved hops from the get go. Hops are one of my favorite things about living in the Yakima Valley, right up there with tacos and the way the setting and rising sun paints the clouds and the hills and the sage with audacious swaths of pink and orange.
Hop harvest is a spectacle, a cluster, a hysterical burst of energy and passion that climaxes handsomely (in my estimation at least) with Yakima’s best night of the year, the Fresh Hop Festival.
But then what?
Well for some of us the celebration of hops goes on all year long. The 70 million pounds or so of hops that were harvested this year in the Valley will find themselves expressed beautifully in more than a thousand artistic iterations in breweries around the world. Art, some say, should never be judged, but rather subjectively experienced and appreciated (or not) on a personal level. And now it’s my turn. So tonight, a Monday, I grab a team of fellow enthusiasts for a quick jaunt across town, looking for our own perfect expression of our dear friend, humulus lupulus.
Jim Boyd is not a guy who can disappear in a crowd. Jim Boyd IS a crowd. He’s built like an oak tree and he’d probably seem pretty intimidating if his eyes didn’t perpetually sparkle with cheerful mischief. Sure, sometimes he’ll arch the quizzical eyebrow, and I may once have seen a trace of skepticism, but that’s only because your dumb-self proposed something that wasn’t fun or authentic or interesting. But he also knows that after a couple of pints you’ll come around or you’ll hit the road so he’s not sweating it.
Jim’s arms are festooned with hop tattoos and he sports his trademark Buddy Holly glasses, but his defining feature is his beard. It’s a remarkable beard. Literally remarkable. We were walking down Yakima Ave and a woman who looked like she spent a lot of time on Yakima Ave yelled “Hey it’s ZZ Top!”. And that’s a fair commentary, but it really doesn’t do justice to the full ensemble that is Jim Boyd. More like Paul Bunyan got kicked out of Hogwarts and then founded a biker gang. Jim came relatively late in life to hops, as he had earlier stints in pharmaceuticals and aerospace – or as Jim says, in drugs and rocket science. He probably never imagined his degree in electrical engineering would one day lead him to what today is possibly the coolest job in the universe. His business card reads “Sr. Vice President of Hop Sales” for Roy Farms, but he describes it as “sharing hop facts via sensory experience with Artisanal Brewers”. Part philosopher, part booze savant, the bottom line is there is not a more qualified man on the planet to curate a deep dive into the underbelly of beer culture.
Also on the tour was Yakima celebrity and by-donation-only yoga instructor Eric “Kid” Phillips. Kid was a chef in Philadelphia, a nurse in California, and Yakima forever owes him a debt of gratitude for his role in opening and designing the original (and resilient) menu at Yakima Sports Center. Kid probably could disappear in a crowd, but he’s more likely to attract one with his 24-7 smile, trumpet voice, and his unapologetic and well-earned love of life.
Rounding out the trip was Stefanie Buckbee, and while I swear her affiliation with Georgetown Brewing did not sway the evening’s final results, it is true that we expressly relied on her for clear judgment, time management, and bail money.
Like many memorable nights in Yakima, this one started at The Sports Center. If you’ve spent any time there in the past 45 days you’ll know it’s become the center of gravity for the world’s best brewers during hop harvest. Belly up to the bar in September and you may well run into the all-stars from Odell Brewing, Green Flash, Founders (All Day IPA!), Troeg’s, Dogfish Head, New Glarus, Victory, Stone or Lagunitas. Yep, they were all here, as were dozens of other fantastic beer makers. Sports Center has forged strong relationships with some of the best and most innovative craft brewers in the country, which means that its 24 taps will often include one-off or seasonal beers that you won’t find anywhere else for miles.
Our research tonight included some pretty cool options, from brewer-legend John Harris’s Ecliptic to Lagunitas’s Aunt Sally (a tidy little dry hop sour) to Firestone’s Luponic Distortion 002 (hop components zealously kept under seal until the next version comes out next year). My favorite of this round was the Organic IPA from Portland’s Hop Works, featuring Ahtanum, Centennial and Cascade hops. Pine and lemon and a kick of bitter on the back of your tongue (“like poison, but in a good way”, says Boyd), and I must say it paired perfectly with the verde nachos, which on any other night are alone worth the trip.
Next up was Hop Nation. Northwest beer makers sometimes appear to be in an arms race to see who can pack the most IBUs into an imperial pint. Hop Nation has politely opted out of that particular competition, and brewer Ben Grossman has instead crafted an elegant line of what I, in my clumsy and uneducated vernacular, would call European-styled ales. We tried the whole slate, from Dunkel Weiss to the Ego IPA, with a Scottish Ale and a Cream Ale in between. The winner for me this evening, paired with some salty pretzels and stone-ground mustard, was the Brewers’s Select, a lovely Pale Ale punctuated with Denali hops (aka, Nuggetzilla).
We were joined at our table by Paul, a genial hop geneticist with a New York based hop trading company. Paul was perhaps the most patient scientist I’ve ever met, and he was kind enough to gift-wrap his explanations into words that even I could understand. (Well, most of them anyway). You could see Paul’s mind wander back to his days on the Golden Rice Project as he talked about the medicinal potential for hops. As he theorized it, if a commercially viable and mythically vigorous plant commodity like hops can be utilized for medicinal purposes it could “depharmaceuticalize” any number of medicinal therapies. As any avid hop-dork knows, hops for centuries have been therapeutically utilized for treating sleeplessness, anxiety and digestive disorders. (Footnote: Ives AW. An experimental inquiry into the chemical properties and economical and medicinal virtues of the Humulus Lupulus, or the Common Hop. American Journal of Science. 1820:302-312.) My notes from my discussion with Paul include words like polyphenol, prenylflavanone and chalcone, and I must confess the nuances were lost on me. But the takeaway was this: I was sitting there in Yakima, on a bar stool, on a Monday, and a dude with a gigantic brain was telling me how hops could one day revolutionize medicine. And this was about the 18 millionth moment that I realized that I love beer.
Bill’s Place attracts what I would call an eclectic demographic. Depending on which direction you’re faced you could believe you were in a dive bar, an art gallery, a refined gastropub, or a Judas Priest tribute show.
The commitment to hops is abundantly clear from the lovely artwork by Jamaica Jo. If that didn’t sell you, check out the 16 tap (soon to be 32 tap) tower and the range of hard-to-find craft beers from up and down the coast. The beer selection is curated by Doug Grandstand and the staff brings the knowledge to answer almost any beer-nerd’s questions.
The night was full of laughs but the highlight had to be Kid’s spectacularly failed effort to pull apart a spicy chicken wing at Bill’s. Kid swears that if you pull just right on the grizzled ends of what he calls a double-wing that the bones will magically unsheathe and the meat will flutter gently onto your plate. What he proved, however, is that if you pull just wrong, the chicken wing will explode in a dozen directions and paint your ¾ sleeve jersey and your face with splatters of Frank’s hot sauce.
And with that we called it a night and agreed that Johnny Utah, a legit Citra show pony (and the Fresh Hop Festival’s Pale Ale champ), had nailed the closing. (Though that Rainier tasted darn nice too, with just enough Mt. Hood and Willamette to keep me coming back for more.)
Brendan Monahan is a freelance spiritual guide and low-output hobby-writer. He welcomes suggestions for the next Pub Crawl.
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