Steeped In Hops

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on July 16, 2007
Photos by David Dick Dale Gamache, Ed. St. Mary and Gene Gamache grow hops in Moxee, Wash., known as the "Hops Capital of the World" since 1930.

Tractor lights illuminate a trellis of hops on the 800-acre Desmarais farm in Moxee, Wash. (pop. 821), as workers cut down vines of the flavor-packed crop that gives beer its bitter taste. From mid-August through September, farmers in the Yakima Valley labor nearly around-the-clock harvesting 75 percent of the nation’s hops, an aromatic, perennial crop that has been grown in the region for five generations.

“The most efficient harvest is when you’re working day and night,” says G. Lee Desmarais, 62, whose grandfather George Desmarais and uncle Louis Desmarais planted the family’s first hop crop in 1904.

Meanwhile, on the 365-acre Gamache farm a few miles down the road, the hop harvest also is in full swing. “I’ve been doing it just about since I was born,” says Gene Gamache, 53, a fourth-generation hop farmer. “You start out doing the grunt work, cutting ditches for irrigation, then you move up from there.”

The story of Moxee, and the entire Yakima Valley, is steeped in hops. Charles Carpenter is credited with planting the first hops in the valley in the late 1800s. However, large-scale production didn’t begin until a group of French-Canadian farmers, including the Desmarais and Gamache families, planted the crop and helped establish Moxee as the “Hops Capital of the World” by 1930.

Today, 42 farmers in the Yakima Valley harvest about 40 million pounds of hops annually—about 20 percent of the world’s supply—on 21,000 acres of land, says Ann George, administrator of the Washington Hops Commission, based in Moxee. Only Germany produces more.

Before the harvest begins, local residents celebrate the region’s hop-growing tradition each August during the Moxee Hop Festival. The festival, which includes a parade, music and family activities, was first held in 1947 to raise money for a community swimming pool.

Today, most of the money raised during the annual celebration supports the local library, 4-H clubs and civic organizations, says Stan Fortier, festival director.

Hops, which are native to North America, thrive in the region’s arid climate and rich soil. Each spring, farmers clear the soil in preparation for new shoots that sprout from rhizomes buried 2 inches below. Once established, the plant produces a crop of cone-shaped hops each year, though most farmers replace rootstock every eight to 10 years.

In May, the new shoots are wrapped around twine and trained to grow up the string and over 18-foot wire trellises. “They just follow the sun and grow right up that string,” says Marc Desmarais, G. Lee’s brother, who tends 150 acres of his own hops and helps on the family farm.

Farmers irrigate the fields and guard against insects until harvest begins at the end of summer. Then they work 24 hours a day cutting the hop-heavy vines, which fall into a trailer and are transported to a building where a machine separates the leaves and debris from the hop cones. The cones are dried in a kiln, cooled and packed into 200-pound bales before being trucked to the nation’s largest breweries, such as Anheuser-Busch and Coors Brewing Co. Some hops also are sold to microbreweries or exported overseas.

Farmers in the Yakima Valley grow more than 30 varieties of hops, some with names derived from the Pacific Northwest, such as Cascade, Chinook and Willamette. “You try to grow what the buyers want,” says Gamache, whose brother Dale and cousins Tim and Bruce also are hop farmers. Generally, 4 ounces of hops are used to flavor a 31-gallon barrel of beer.

“More hops equal more flavor and add much more character to the beer,” says Rich Van Horn, G. Lee Desmarais’ brother-in-law and president of the family farm. “You want the nicest, greenest cones for the brewer.”

And that quality comes through in the flavor of the finished product, says Van Horn, who likes to relax with a good beer after a hard day of work. “Good quality hops do make a better beer,” he says.