Washington craft brewers had more to celebrate last weekend than just the 12th annual Brewers Festival hosted by the Washington Beer Commission. Equally worthy of note has been the industry’s tremendous growth in the past decade, aided in no small part by a booming regional hops business that has made the United States the world’s top producer.
Featured at the event were more than 500 beers from 150 breweries; when the beer commission was created by the state legislature in 2006, there were only around 100 Washington craft breweries. Today, there are more than 350, and Executive Director Eric Radovich estimates that on average, a new one opens every 10 days.
He attributes much of their explosion to the popularity of homebrewing in the Pacific Northwest. “People like beer and people like making beer, and I think they found it to be a career option. If you enjoy making beer… you’re thinking to yourself ‘I’ve been paving roads or working in an insurance company, and wow, I could make beer and sell it by the glass right out of my tasting room.’”
Washington Brewers Guild President Pamela Brulotte told Lens that “local craft beer has really been supported by the residents in our state, too. It seems neighborhoods are very supportive of having a local craft brewery there.” In addition to heading up legislative efforts via the guild, Brulotte is also the owner of the Icicle Brewing Company located in Leavenworth.
A major advantage for Washington brewers is access to the 38,000 acres of hops grown in the Yakima Valley; the region is the nation’s largest hops producer, with 75 percent of the total acreage dedicated to hops cultivation. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, the amount of hops harvested in the valley increased by 30 percent.
“A lot of our breweries know the hops growers personally,” Radovich said. “You can walk through the hops fields and interact with the owners. Fresh hops, clean water; those are the key ingredients for making beer. It really is a local product.”
Perhaps reflecting Washington’s unique relationship between brewers and hop growers is the beer commission itself, the only one of its kind. Radovich told Lens that “our job is to just showcase the byproduct of the great hops we grow in the Yakima Valley and the finished product.”
“At our events, I think the key for us is the people pouring the beers are not only knowledgeable about the beer, but it’s often the brewer themselves,” he added. “We have so many small-batch, fresh craft beer producers. They’re all creative, they make unique beers.”
Along with marketing efforts funded by proceeds from beer festivals, the beer commission has also created an app to aid beer lovers in search of nearby craft breweries.
“I would say we’re still in our infancy, so it will be interesting to see five years from now or even three years from now if it (industry growth) sustains itself,” he said.
From a regulatory standpoint, Brulotte said the guild aims to “improve and increase Washington breweries’ opportunities to sell and market beer,” such as allowing beer manufacturers to host private off-site events.
“We want to make sure that our laws allow small and independent breweries access to the market,” she said.
That, and keeping taxes low are key, she added. “We’re already taxed quite a bit and it can really hamper growth. Right now, when states surrounding us have half the amount of taxes, it’s hard to compete. You have less room to grow and put quality systems in place or employees and equipment. Brewing is very capital-intensive. Things like that (taxes) really do make a difference.”
At the same time, she said their focus is also making sure the state’s brewers are “known for high quality beer. What are some ways that small breweries can work together to ensure that we are putting out quality beers and keeping our reputation for great beers and high standards up there?”
The Washington Brewers Festival is held every June.