Eric Desmarais the owner of CLS Farms sat on the porch of the office in Moxee, Washington, looking out at the open warehouse where just harvested Citra hops awaited processing.

Rain and smoke filled the air.

He wasn’t quite ready to call this “a rain event,” which requires about a quarter of an inch or more of precipitation falling, but he watched the radar intently and several staff meetings that morning discussed what to do if the drizzle didn’t let up.

Dry conditions are ideal when harvesting hops. Moisture that gets into the cones can add off flavors during processing, Desmarais noted. Wildfires in the area had already clouded the skies for a few days and rain can drive the persistent aroma of smoke further into the hops.

“This makes me nervous,” he said. “I’ll tell you that.”

There are roughly 40 days in the average hop picking season where cones are ready and can be plucked off the bines, processed, and made to be ready for beer. Each harvesting day in the Pacific Northwest is precious and a lot must go right for the farmers.

Last Monday was not off to a great start.

Eric Desmarais rubs El Dorado hops at CLS Farms in September 2022. Photo by John Holl.

Mud Spattered Fields and Wet Cones

Desmarais climbed into the driver’s seat of a beat-up GMC pickup and apologized for the dust.

There is a patina of cocoa colored dirt covering the interior and sticking to anything new it touches. Even a hearty brushing on clothing doesn’t wipe it away.

After a few minutes of driving through the fields, it’s clear the dust would be kicking up but for the rain. On this morning it had formed a muddy paste, a consistency that would soon form puddles if the rainfall didn’t let up.

Outside the pickup windows, as the wipers occasionally swipe, the workers in the field are dressed for the elements.

Hops are fickle and Desmarais notes that in recent weeks, the overall picking yield is down slightly from projections made earlier in the year.

There is only so much visualization that can happen for accuracy as the growing season takes hold, he says. Once the bines are processed through the pickers and hit the kiln a better realization of the numbers take hold.

“Brewers shouldn’t worry about getting hops,” Desmarais says. “There are still plenty.”

Rain falls on CLS Farms in September 2022. Photo by John Holl.

Keeping up with Times

The Yakima Valley is an awe-inspiring place for brewers and a critically important region for the hop crop in the United States. Desmarais comes from a long line of farmers who have been harvesting hops long before the boom times of modern craft beer and the breakneck pace of innovation for new flavors and aromas from new varietals.

Two uncles own nearby farms and are also harvesting hops, and Desmarais says that while the three are separate corporate entities, their families remain close and often discuss the changes happening.

In his 34 years at the helm of CLS Farms, he has seen the climate change and watched regulatory impacts. He spends a lot of time thinking about the future beyond just the annual harvest.

“We’ve never had this amount of smoke,” he says. Wildfires have burned through forests and turned the sky black in the past two years, making everything smell “like a camp fire after someone poured a bucket of water on it.”

On this particular Monday the smoke wasn’t that assertive, more akin to a light, sweet smoke that might be found in a cedar sauna. Not good. Not too bad.

Desmarais sees three major things currently working against the agricultural industry in the Yakima Valley.

The first, he says, is that the average temperature is two degrees higher than it was 20 years ago in the summer. The second is that there has been a reduction in the logging industry. Third, there has been general education about fire suppression over the last several decades.

“There’s just a lot of fuel that burns when a fire starts,” he says. That leads to more smoke.

Desmarais checks freshly bailed hops for moisture. Photo by John Holl

Smoke Concerns

The 2020 and 2021 fires in the Pacific Northwest infused Yakima-picked hops with smoke taint. This isn’t always apparent during harvest or even lot selection by brewers but is showing up well after hops have been packed, shipped, and stored and then used in beers.

While there is worry about rain droplets driving smoke particulates into hops while the bines are still in the field, the greater concern for taint comes from the kilning process which requires a huge intake of fresh air to move through the propane heaters to dry out just-picked hops.

When the air quality is poor, the greater the chance for smoky aromas to develop down the line.

After returning from the fields Desmarais heads to the kiln and grabs a handful of hops that are currently drying.

“These feel ok,” he says. “Not too much residual moisture at this point.”

He’s considering adding charcoal filters near the entryways of the kilning facility to be used when the smoke conditions are a concern. With a limited harvest window, he must consider any technology that can keep out unwanted flavors.

There are also tests being developed by researchers that can help detect smoke taint before it winds up in a recipe that was not destined to become a rauchbier.

A few minutes later Desmarais is in the bailing facility shoving a probe into sacks of hops to check for moisture. The levels were acceptable and he walked back out into a spotty rain while checking his phone.

“AccuWeather says another nine minutes and it should be over,” he says.  

New, Old, and Emerging Hops

CLS Farms has 2,300 acres in the Yakima Valley and grows a lot of varieties familiar to drinkers, like Citra and El Dorado. The farm has also been working with the Hop Quality Group, a collection of brewers, on developing emerging hops that have been planted in what Desmarais calls “new variety land.”

There are also old favorites like Comet, a hop developed in the 1970s that still makes brewers happy and often sees a spike in interest when Citra hits a snag in production or availability.

Driving the fields, he points out the Neomexicanus hops, specifically Zappa and Medusa varieties, that are struggling to climb the trellis, preferring to bush up towards the ground. The next field over hosts five proprietary varieties that have been licensed to the farm by Hopsteiner.

Aroma hops drive the United States market when it comes to interest from craft brewers but Desmarais noted that the German yield, which is largely focused on hops with higher alpha acids, has been down. He’s been thinking about planting some acres that could supplement further German losses in the coming years.

Workers processing Citra hops at CLS Farms in Moxee, Washington

Back to Work

Even when the weather is clear, there are always other things to worry about: climate, labor availability and cost, supply chains, and global events.

Back on the porch, Desmarais, watches as work resumes in the processor after a break.

The weather predictions had largely come true. The skies were overcast but the rain seemed to have moved along.

“I think we’ll be OK,” Desmarais said. “I just wish the smoke wasn’t here.”