March 19, 2019
Jessica Riel grew up in a farming family in Washington’s Yakima Valley, the top hops growing region in the U.S. In 2015 the family business was growing due to the expansion of the craft beer industry in the U.S. so, as the demand rose, she answered the call and moved back home and set to work. Today she is learning from her father as she manages a variety of areas at the farm ranging from overseeing the extensive lineup of H2A workers that they have a significant need for during harvest to the employee health care program. She also does all of the book work and accounting for the bustling business. The farm has 35 employees year round but that grows to 120 during certain parts of the growing and harvest season, due to the very intense manual labor requirements for growing hops.
My trip to the Yakima Valley came as Double R Hops ranch was nearing the end of harvest on the extensive acres of hops. I met Jessica at their office and tasting room (yes, when you have a hops farm you have to have a tasting room to show off the final product) and we set off to get a look at the operation. We started out in a field a few miles away, where the crews were busy harvesting. For those of you who haven’t seen a hops farm before, as I hadn’t, it is a pretty unique process - see more about that in this video! Imagine rows and rows of what look like telephone poles set in straight lines, up and down the field. There are wires strung between the tops of the poles where the hops vines attach. The harvesting machine drives up and down the rows, cutting the vine at the top, then it falls into the truck following behind. We watched as the skilled workers made short work of the rest of the field. Check out a video about hops varieties, here.
Before we jumped into the truck to head back over to the processing facility, we stopped for a quick look at the Concord grape vines they also grow, for diversity. The grapes were nearing harvest but had to wait their turn until after the hops were done. Jessica picked a few of the ripe berries, explaining that they were grown for juice. We tried one and sure enough it tasted JUST like grape juice!
A few miles back down the road, we turned down a long gravel road and bumped our way towards the processing facility the family owns and operates. Following a truck full of freshly cut hops vines in, we went to the first stop where the vines are picked up out of the truck and strung up on a conveyor system.
Once hanging they move inside the building where the hops berries are removed from the vine. The berries then go through a series of conveyors and workers to be further cleaned. They then make their way to the next building which is the kiln. As we stepped into the kiln building the temperature rose drastically. Large fires burned in the furnaces below, sending heat up to the piles of hops sitting on the second story. It was a cool sight to see, hops as far as the eye could see with billows of steam rising up out of them. The kiln area is constantly monitored to protect against fire, due to the extreme heat.
We then made the final stop into a huge warehouse where the dried hops berries are stored and then bailed up before being shipped out. Watch the video here.
We made our way to the final stop, back to the office and tasting room where Jessica poured out some of the delicious beer made from her hops. She explained that buyers from breweries around the world make trips to Yakima and visit their farm and others to pick out the perfect hops. Jessica was a knowledgeable and welcoming host. It was clear to see knows her hops, and takes the family business seriously, carrying it into the next generation with the grace and grit of a FarmHer.
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