Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A few weeks ago a friend and I took a gustatory day trip, but this time it wasn't about the food. It was about beer. We went to the source of the taste of beer. On a photo assignment for a local magazine, we drove a couple hundred miles out to the Yakima Valley in southern Washington to photograph the man in charge of this commodity. It is in Yakima where farmers harvest most of the country’s hops—that herbacious flower that gives India Pale Ale it’s distinguishable taste (and many beers their bitterness). We met with the President of HopUnion, the company that supplies most of the nation’s craft breweries with their hops (and given t-shirts and keychains bearing slogans like “Hop-Blooded!”). This may seem esoteric to many of you, but here in Portland, beer-speak is everyday lingo. Everybody knows the difference between an IPA, a lager, Heffeweizen, porters, stouts and ales. If they don’t know the difference, they can taste it, and they know what they like. No self-respecting Portlander is drinking Heinneken out here, that’s for sure. That would be of a category that I’ve come to refer to as “yellow beer.” I don’t drink it either (in fact, lately I’ve gotten into Belgian beers, but that’s a whole different story).

The issue at hand, and what put us on assignment in the first place, is that there is a hop shortage in this country right now. Craft brewing (microbrewing--the good stuff) has increased in popularity, and businesses have multiplied faster than the hops can grow. Farmers are depressed because there just isn’t enough to go around. The harvest is allocated a year out, and HopUnion has a long waiting list. In the winter, the fields are fallow, but the warehouses still have stock from last year (as well as imported hops from Europe). We were able to peak into these giant refrigerators (their cold storage areas are kept at 32 degrees, in the desert), and the moment we stepped in we could smell that distinctive floral scent that only hops can deliver. I do like hoppy beer, so of course my sensory memory immediately dreamt of a cold IPA. It still takes me by surprise sometimes how much a smell can conjure up such an acute association.

The whole trip was so fascinating—to see how this one plant can be the source of flavor, and joy and sorrow (not the kind caused by beer drinking--the hop growers are truly saddened by the shortage situation).

The Yakima Valley happens to be part of the Columbia Valley wine growing region—known primarily for cabernets and syrahs. We drove high into the hills above the hop fields to a brand-new tasting room in a renovated farm cottage. Surrounding the structure are vineyards recently planted with over 15 varietals from around the world. Quite ambitious and intriguing, I thought. The winemaker will wait years to see how these all pan out, how these grapes behave in those conditions.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the vineyard manager, then the tasting room stewards—an extremely welcoming and friendly couple, who invited us in to taste wines from Wilridge and Harlequin. We even chatted with one of the winemakers, who was just finishing his day tending to the property. More than with the wines, I was impressed by the hospitality of these people, and the beauty of the land up there. With the farms and vineyards in the distance, the steep hillsides were reminiscent of Italian hilltowns. The backside of the property dips into a wildlife preserve—Cowiche Canyon. Gorgeous. We watched the sunset with them, said good bye to our hosts and the sagebrush, and drove back home to Portland.

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