PROSSER, Wash. – This Thanksgiving, craft beer’s popularity will be evident in many American households when suds appear alongside the turkey and mashed potatoes.
Raising a glass will be Washington State University researcher Doug Walsh as he toasts the state’s record-breaking hops harvest that ended in early October.
To quench the thirst for hop-heavy brews, the crop’s production rose 16 percent over last year, he said. The historic leap makes Washington the world’s number one producer of hops, outranking Germany.
When he began field studies on the emerald-colored plant more than a decade ago, “craft beer was gaining in popularity, but I never imagined it would go chic the way it has,” said Walsh, a leading hop scientist at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. On 13 acres, Walsh oversees research on the cone-shaped flowers that give beer its flavor and aroma.
Hops de terroir
While attending the American Hop Convention last year, Walsh recalled, he heard the word “terroir” used for the first time in relation to hops. It is a French term used to describe the way terrain and climate influence a wine’s unique flavor and aroma.
“When I heard that, I realized how far beer has come, from standard Joe Six-pack to sophisticated,” he said.
The beverage has come so far that urbane magazines such as Food and Wine and GQ have run articles on how to pair beer with Thanksgiving dinner. “Turkey-friendly Beers,” reads a headline in this month’s Bon Appetit.
Even President Obama loves the stuff. Brewed right there at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is White House Honey Ale. The ingredients were published online after 25,000 citizens signed a petition requesting the recipe.
“More and more people – particularly millennials – enjoy the wide range of flavor-packed complexity that hops contribute,” Walsh said. For them, hops are to beer what grapes are to wine, with more than 100 varieties imparting a repertoire of notes, including earthy, piney, citrusy and spicy, he explained.
The buzz on Washington state
Why is central Washington the epicenter of hop production? Ample warm daylight hours, cool nights and dry climate, according to hop grower and breeder Jason Perrault, whose Perrault Farms family business was launched 104 years ago in the Yakima Valley.
The state’s prolific harvest is a good thing for the consumer’s discriminating palate, since craft beer contains many more hops than traditional-style lagers, he explained.
Perrault will enjoy a glass of fine beer with his Thanksgiving feast in an RV parking lot on the WSU campus, he said.
And the next day, he hopes to toast the winning Cougars in the annual Apple Cup football game against the University of Washington Huskies.