Certain locales lend themselves to be a perfect host for specialty events; from cheese festivals in Wisconsin to a pizza competition in New York and Chicago or BBQ cookoffs in Kansas City, Memphis or pretty much anywhere in the great state of Texas.
None of those destinations can hold a candle to one of the greatest beer events in the country, the Fresh Hop Ale Festival held every fall in Yakima, Washington. While those other cities or states are known for a certain cuisine or food, they don’t own the entire market. On the other hand, Yakima is the home of the hops, the key ingredient in beer. And when I say home, I mean THE home in the United States and across the globe.
The Yakima Valley grows 75 percent of the hops in the U.S. Yes, that means that probably three out of every four beers you have ever consumed in your lifetime have had their hops grown around Yakima. New York and Chicago might claim fame to styles of pizza, but the flour, tomatoes or cheese to make them don’t all originate from there. Any celebration they might host would pale in comparison to this hop event.
But what is a “fresh hop” and why do we care? It’s exactly what the name says, fresh. It was picked shortly before being made into beer. Shortly means different things to different people. Some purists say if it takes longer than two hours to get into your brewing kettle that it can’t be considered fresh hop. Others are comfortable with a six-hour time frame from hop bine to kettle. As long as it is still wet and fresh, like the feel of the silk inside the husk from an ear of corn and not dry like last week’s floral bouquet on the dining room table, well, you get the idea.
Fresh Hop Beer
You should care about a fresh hop beer because the flavor is simply magical. A fresh hop brew sings to its owner. It announces its presence more than any other beer that has wet your upper lip. Its fragrance dances around your head while the cool beverage tantalizes your every taste bud. And it is only available for a roughly four-week stretch every fall.
Hop picking generally begins in mid-August, and some of those cones are immediately used to make beer. Approximately a month later, the sweet nectar is ready for consumption. Fresh hop beers are under such high demand that some breweries struggle to keep a batch for longer than a week or two. But, dozens make sure to have enough to compete in the annual Fresh Hop Ale Festival.
Fresh Hop Ale Festival
For 17 years now, Yakima has been host to this unique fresh hop event. It had a sparse beginning as most events do, with early attendees suggesting maybe 600-700 through the gates. In 2019, the celebration hit the largest level ever with over 6,800 in attendance.
The event reached new heights for good reasons too. In total, 65 breweries were on site to pour their fresh hop brews, the same number as last year. However, many continue to try new recipes looking for the perfect balance, and this year you could find approximately 220 different beers to sample.
The beers are judged by a committee and awarded at the end of the event. Home brewers compete on their own level as well, this year with 50 entries. The 2019 brewery winners were:
The event includes a general admission area, as well as VIP. The vast majority of the beers are available in general, however, the winners from the previous year are also served in the VIP section along with multiple food vendors included in the admission price. The 2018 lineup included Cloudburst Brewing, Holy Mountain Brewing, Single Hill Brewing Company and Modern Times Beer.
The event used to serve beer in pint glasses but shifted to a more modest sized nine-ounce glass for greater variety in tasting. The organization might still be counting the tokens to this day, but they estimated that 70,000 beers were poured that evening.
The festival was in a new location for the first time since inception. In years past it resided in a parking lot across from the century old Capitol Theatre in downtown Yakima. Realizing the event needed more space, the committee found a larger lot, owned by Virginia Mason Memorial Hospital, with an additional 20,000 square feet. The new area was more than adequate for the increase in attendance as well as the dozen food vendors, winery and cider booths as well as the live music to entertain the masses.
While the event is strictly 21 and over, and a great time for adults, its charter does have a nobler cause than just consuming the freshest beers available. The non-profit board that runs the organization donates the proceeds to Yakima County arts and science based non-profits. In 2018, the figure was over $104,000. The final amount was still being tabulated when this article was written, but the committee anticipates easily reaching $110,000 or more this year.
If you are interested in the next event on October 3rd, 2020, visit www.FreshHopAleFestival.com for more information. VIP tickets usually go on sale in March and general admission in May or June.
Photography by Petar Marshall.