Hard work goes into that glass By Colin Anderson
Whether enjoying a bold cab or a hazy IPA, your preferred drink is more than likely sourced from very close by. Washington is second only to California in the amount of wine produced domestically. According to the Washington State Wine Commission, there are more than 1,050 licensed wineries in the state that draw from the more than 60,000 acres of grapes grown within 19 distinct American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). The state is also a leader in the production of hops, which give beer its aroma and bitterness. There is a short window each year in which both grapes and hops can be harvested, and it’s all hands on deck during this often whirlwind time.
While the Yakima Valley accounts for nearly 75 percent of the hop acreage in the United States, you’ll actually find the largest individual hop farm across the border in far Northern Idaho. Elk Mountain Farms is located north of Bonners Ferry and provides hops for some of the biggest breweries in the nation. It was 600 acres when it was opened in 1987 and has swelled to 1,700 acres today. “We have a rich fertile valley here with lots of irrigation, long summer days and cool nights. Hops enjoy the 80-degree days and the 60-degree nights,” explains longtime General Manager Ed Atkins.
A single acre on the farm contains 889 plants, meaning at full capacity there are more than a million-and-a-half plants that are tended to. Hop bines grow vertically, eventually reaching about 20 feet in height. Each spring, Ed’s staff wind out some 80 million feet of string made from coconut husk fibers. The plants then need to be individually wrapped around the string, not once but again a month later to make sure they rise correctly. “Hops are high maintenance and high labor,” Ed states.
Harvest arrives typically in August, when approximately 220 seasonal workers are brought in to work, around the clock, for approximately three weeks. Specially built hop combines gather the whole bine and begin separating out the hop cones from the rest of the plant. Bines are sent through an unloader, which breaks up the clumps and starts to separate the cones from the rest of the plant.
The material is then sent to the warehouse, where it undergoes six more steps in removing non-usable portions of the plant so that only the hop cones remain. The hops are then dried at a temperature of around 130 to 145 degrees. Once out of the kiln, a conveyor drops them into another area atop a cloth for them to cool. These tables are filled about 30-inches deep, and it takes anywhere from four to 13 hours for the hops to hit their preferred moisture level of 9.5 percent. “Operators feel by hand and read the moisture levels. Once we hit that mark, they are sent to be bailed,” explains Ed. The hops are now ready for packaging and sent to breweries across the country.
Much like hops, the grapes growing across the valleys of Central Washington enjoy warm sunny days and cool nights. While the time for harvesting is typically longer than that of hops, finding just the right window in which to pluck grapes from the vines is the goal of each winemaker. Phil Butterfield is owner and winemaker at Winescape Winery in Spokane. Opened in 2017, Phil knows firsthand the challenges of each harvest season. “In 2019, we had an early freeze and had to scramble to pick up everything at once. 2020, we had some smoke taint to the grapes,” he recalls.
As a small winery, Winescape takes in about 30 tons of grapes, usually in September and over a four- to six-week period. For Phil, that means about 13 roundtrips to the vineyards in the Columbia and Red Mountain AVAs in which he sources his grapes. But before any grapes are picked, like other winemakers, Phil gets reports from the vineyard on pH levels, sugar content and acidity before he travels to taste and inspect himself. “If you pick too early they can taste green, too late and you get a raisin-like taste,” he says. “It’s finding that sweet spot in the middle for that particular grape and vintage that is the real challenge.”
Once the winemaker gets the information and flavor profile they are seeking, the grapes are harvested. There is machine harvest, but Phil prefers hand-picked fruit. The weather, schedule of the vineyard and staffing can alter plans, but for the most part, winemakers can access their grapes when they work best for the profile they are hoping to achieve. Grapes are picked in clusters, placed into a large bin and transported back to the winery where they are stored in a cool place. A de-stemming machine separates the fruit from the cluster, where it can then be pressed and fermented before being barreled and aged.
Despite record heat and drought conditions that could have crippled the harvest this year, the fall weather turned near perfect for ripening. Overall yield is much lower this season, but Phil believes, based on the fall conditions and his early sampling, that this harvest will produce great results from wineries throughout the region.
“Every season is different, and most winemakers enjoy the challenge. We want our wines to reflect what’s happening each growing season.”
At their core, grapes and hops are a crop much like any other. It takes mountains of manpower to make sure they are properly cared for and harvested at the peak of flavor. Try and keep that in the back of your mind on your next tasting trip or pint at your favorite brewery.