Written by Adam LeClaire, Logistics Manager
Like a lot of people, I really enjoy traveling. I like the new experiences that come with it and getting the chance to see someplace new, but I also enjoy the subtle differences you can notice when traveling to a new place. Hell, I even enjoy putting my headphones in and navigating airports as an anonymous member of the crowd. A recent trip to Yakima, Washington with our Director of Brewing Operations, John Stewart, to select the hops we will be using in 2018 was another great opportunity to get out of the office and experience a few new things.
The trip first took us to Seattle, where we spent a day noticing subtle differences in culture that lead us to realize just how uptight the Midwest can be. For example, U-turns are perfectly legal in Washington and here in Michigan we often can’t even make a normal left hand turn (hence the “Michigan Left”). We had to be a little touristy and hit Pikes Place Market, where we loaded up on some amazing seafood for a few meals and spent some time just taking in the spectacle of it all. From there we decided to explore a few of Washington’s fine recreational marijuana dispensaries. Without getting political, why would this not be a thing in Michigan? Midwestern uptightness, that’s why. Oh, and we also checked out a few breweries along the way too. Fremont Brewing was a favorite of mine given that they had cold brewed coffee on tap and a cool open-air atmosphere.
Before making the three hour(ish) drive out to Yakima, we thought it important to load up on coffee. And here’s where more subtle nuances pop up – not only does Washington have a ton of small, drive through coffee stands to get your fix, you can even get served by a barista in a g-string. Once again we wondered why this isn’t a thing in Michigan. Titty-coffee in hand, we took the long way to Yakima to take in the sights of Mt. Rainer. Although it was a bit less visible due to forest fire smoke, the area surrounding the mountain is gorgeous and make the drive much more enjoyable.
Once we were out in Yakima, we got down to the business of professionally smelling things; in this case hops. Each year we make this trip not to buy new hops, but to select exactly which hops we will be using for the upcoming year. As the farmers begin harvesting their crops, the hop brokers allow brewers to evaluate samples from each farm and pick the lot that they think best suits the beers they are making. The process is simple but more difficult than you would think. For each hop variety that you are selecting the broker will place 4 – 8 samples of the same hop on the table. One by one, you make your way through each sample taking note of the physical appearance of the hops as well as making a careful critique of the aromas. In the end, the sample that you feel best fits your beers is the one that wins out.
Given that we are part of the Oskar Blues family, we aren’t doing this alone. In addition to us, there were folks from two Oskar Blues locations, Cigar City, and the Utah Brewers Cooperative – that’s a lot of years of brewing experience standing around the table. Although many of us are using different hops or using the same hops in different ways, it’s great to have such a strong group to draw opinions from. Again, trying to distinguish between a half dozen samples of the same hop variety becomes an exercise in splitting hairs, but it could be much worse.
Outside of actual selections, we had a chance to tour farms and processing facilities. One morning we had the chance to spend some time in an experimental hop field checking out different new hops that may or may not ever see commercial use. It’s interesting to see the different directions that hop breeders are trying to take the plant. We also had the chance to see a few of the areas where hop cones are processed into pellets for commercial brewing use. I always find it interesting to see the processing end of things, if for no other reason than they have a lot of really cool equipment to do the work.
When we weren’t smelling hops, looking at hops growing in a field, or looking at hop processing equipment we were probably eating tacos. Another subtle difference between being in a different part of the country is the higher taco consumption rates we encountered. I think most people in Michigan would be a little hesitant to eat tacos from a dilapidated food truck in a laundromat parking lot, but in Yakima, we flocked to it. I can’t put an exact number on how many tacos I personally took down during the week, but it seemed like a never-ending cycle of eating tacos until the point of physical pain and then dealing with taco shame for the hours that followed.
Finally, the trip had to come to an end with a long drive back to Seattle, one last titty-coffee, and flights back to Michigan. While I’ll miss being able to cut across four lanes of traffic to pull a u-turn, CBD candy and knowing what my barista’s buttcheeks look like; it’s good to be home. Oh, and it’s good to know that we’ll be using some amazing hops in beers to come.