Hundreds of pounds of fragrant fresh hops streamed into kettles at breweries on Maui and in Anchorage less than 24 hours after their early-September harvest in Central Washington. Now, an idea that first bubbled up within the Alaska Air Cargo team is yielding the kind of success you can actually taste.
This fall, fresh hop beers with their unique floral flavor – typically found only at breweries within driving distance of Pacific Northwest hop farms – are available from Maui Brewing Co. in Hawaii and 49th State Brewing in Alaska because of a farm-to-glass collaboration and a logistics achievement that is a potential game-changer for the craft beer industry. “Using Alaska Air Cargo, we can guarantee the supply chain all the way from field to the kettle,” said David McCarthy, co-founder of 49th State Brewing. ”Hopefully, this will be the first of many fresh hop brews that we can do.”
It all started with a deep appreciation for a great Northwest beer.
The “Fresh Hops Fly” idea
Jake Spotts, Alaska Air Cargo’s postal affairs manager, had the opportunity to try beers all over the world during his 20-year Air Force career – but could only enjoy a fresh hop beer when he made it home to the Northwest during harvest. After joining the cargo team, Spotts realized our decades of expertise shipping perishable products like fresh Alaska seafood could be leveraged to ship fresh hops to breweries outside the Northwest – something that hadn’t been done by a U.S. airline on a commercial scale. The cargo leadership team immediately saw the potential.
“This puts a Northwest agricultural product in places that don’t normally get it,” said cargo Managing Director Adam Drouhard, noting that Washington state grows almost three-quarters of the U.S. hop crop. “With the size and scope we have in Seattle, we are really positioned to own this.”
Spotts and Drouhard reached out to Bale Breaker Brewing Company, which is located on Loftus Ranches – the Smith family’s commercial hop farm and one of Spotts’ favorite destinations. “You’re sitting on the land where they actually grow the product to make the beer you’re drinking,” Spotts said. “Yakima is like the Mecca of beer.”
Craft brewers thrive on collaboration, and when the opportunity came to ship a large volume of fresh hops out of state, Bale Breaker co-owner Kevin Quinn reached out to Maui Brewing Co. and 49th State Brewing. ”We’ve been building relationships with craft breweries since before we even opened in 2013 because of the hop farm,” said Quinn, adding that his wife, Meghann, and her brothers, Kevin and Patrick Smith, are part of the fourth generation to run Loftus Ranches. “The sharing of knowledge from other brewers helped us out a lot when we were getting started, and now we like to pay it forward.”
The brewers worked together on beer recipes to highlight the hops’ fresh flavor, and coordinated logistics with the Alaska Air Cargo team and Yakima Chief Hops, a grower-owned organization that distributes hops for more than 50 farms across the Northwest.
To keep the hops fresh throughout their journey, the harvest was timed so that the hops could be bagged onsite at the farm immediately after picking. They were loaded into refrigerated trucks and driven to the Alaska Air Cargo offices at Sea-Tac International Airport just in time to load onto the aircraft. More than 1,200 pounds of hops were shipped nonstop to the brewers. “Scalability of shipping fresh hops has really been the challenge to overcome because you only have about 24 hours from harvest before the hops start to degrade,” said Bryan Pierce, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer for YCH.
On Maui and in Anchorage, the brewers were ready to add the fresh hops to the “boil” – the first stage in beer – as soon as they arrived. “When we added the fresh hops, it smelled amazing!” said Kim Brisson-Lutz, Maui Brewing Co.’s Vice President of Operations. “Making beer is a culinary art, and we’re all about making these ingredients really shine.”
“The longer the hops are off the vine, there’s the potential to lose some of the aroma and essential oils that make the beer so special,” 49th State Brewing’s McCarthy said. “Aficionados of beer are really looking for this flavor, and we’re excited we can now make the freshest beer in Anchorage and the whole Alaska market.”
What’s on tap: Our Fresh Hops Fly festival toasts the brewers
In October, guests of our Alaska Lounges in Seattle, Portland and Anchorage airports will have the chance to try fresh hop beers from the three breweries in this collaboration. The beers in the Lounges will be available until they run out. All three breweries are also located in beautiful destinations where Alaska Airlines flies.
The beers: Homegrown Fresh Hop IPA and Citra Slicker Wet Hop IPA
Where to try them:
• On draft at Alaska Lounges in Sea-Tac International Airport, North Satellite and C Gates, and at the Alaska Lounge in Portland International Airport
• On draft and in 16-ounce can 4-packs at the Yakima brewery on Loftus Ranches, the Smith family-owned hop farm celebrating its 90th anniversary this year – just like Alaska Airlines.
• On draft and in 16-ounce can 4-packs at the brewery’s taproom in Seattle’s Ballard Brewing District, as well as throughout Bale Breaker’s distribution footprint in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Use the beer finder on their website to locate both of these releases near you.
The beer: Hop Cargo Fresh Hop IPA
Where to try it:
• On draft at the Alaska Lounge in Sea-Tac, North Satellite
• On draft at the flagship brewery in Kihei, Maui
Hops shipped: 833 pounds
Kegs brewed: Equivalent of 140 kegs
The beer: Freshial Delivery Hazy Fresh Hop IPA
Where to try it:
• On draft at the Alaska Lounge in Anchorage International Airport
• On draft and in 16-ounce can 4-packs at the Downtown Anchorage Pub and at select liquor stores and restaurants across the state of Alaska
Hops shipped: 454 pounds
Kegs brewed: Equivalent of 60 kegs (split between different sizes of kegs and cans)
The future is fresh
With the first successful fresh hops shipments now in the can, Yakima Chief sees the potential to send future harvests to brewers around the country – as well as their new flash-frozen concentrated Cryo Hops® product, known as YCH Trial 301, which allows brewers to add fresh hop flavors to beers year-round. “This is an R&D product that has large potential, but needs a great shipping solution to make it successful and speed is essential,” Pierce said. “Fresh hops have always been regionally secluded to the Pacific Northwest. This could open up that market in a big way – not only in unlocking the seasonality of fresh hops, but also where and how you use them in the brewing process.”
Maui Brewing Co. had enough fresh hops to share some with smaller breweries and home brewers on the island, Brisson-Lutz said. And other brewers from around the country visiting Bale Breaker and Loftus Ranches during hop harvest are already asking about the logistics of shipping fresh hops. “You could have a plane full of hops going to a city with a bunch of breweries, and then a bunch of brewers could get these hops,” Quinn said. “This could really grow into something.”
In Alaska, McCarthy expects many brewers will follow in 49th State’s path. “I think this guaranteed supply chain cargo method is really going to help the craft beer scene in Alaska in years to come,” he said. “And you never know: In a couple of years, we might actually have our own fresh hop beer festival in Alaska, which would be really cool.”