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Yakima Valley dreaming! C’mon smell the hops – and the cilantro

Hoppiest days of the year? Definitely harvest time in Yakima, USA. Confession: I’d been pronouncing it ‘Yah-KEE-mah’ all this time, when it should be ‘YACK-i-maw’. Unfamiliar with Yakima? The name does crop up on craft beer cans, the contents of which increasingly rely on its prime product, hops. Oh, and it’s a lovely laid-back place to hang out in – preferably with a beer or two.

Yet it’s not a monoculture this super fertile agricultural valley in Washington State, irrigated by the Yakima River. It abounds in fruit, in particular apples, and its grapes produce some of America’s most thrilling wines, but there’s no escaping the hop in all its varieties – Cascade, Chinook, Centennial and the rest, now globally familiar. Some 75 per cent of US hops are grown hereabouts in ideally suited volcanic soil.

So it seemed a good idea while passing through the region to drop in on the American Hop Museum in the township of Toppenish, whose major claim to fame is the 70 hand-painted murals, of recent origin, evoking its Wild West past. They are more vivid than the museum, which is as dry as last year’s hop pellets. Still this project of local pride, assembling the rusty machinery and fading pictures of yore, sets the scene for the hopfest to come.

Of all the stop-offs on our San Francisco to Seattle road trip this wasn’t the most obviously touristic and yet we found it fascinating from the moment post-museum when we lunched in a pizza place where a dab of Cascade hoppiness joins tomato and mozzarella as the prime toppings, nibbles are called hoppetisers and the merchandise includes hop-branded babygros. 

Hop Town Wood Fired Pizza, was our recommended lunch stop. It used to be a street food operation before taking over the folksy tasting room of the former Piety Winery, Donald Wapato Road (there’s now a second branch down the road in Sunnyside). 

A house IPA, naturally, accompanied our $12 Porky Pine Prosciutto nine-incher, where pesto, parmesan, pecorino, prosciutto, pine nuts (all the Ps), tomato, hops and a balsamic reduction smothered the charred, springy crust.  

We also shared a Hey! Elote!, a spicy corn dip  with chicken broth, lime, cholula hot sauce, salty cotija cheese and cilantro (coriander). Testimony to the Hispanic presence in hop country. A third of the population in Yakima, at home in its sunny desert climate, is Hispanic. It’s an area full of tacos trucks and shacks. Locals’ pick? Tacos Los Primos 2 at 404 N 4th St in the city proper. If you’re adventurous go for the tripe filling.

Generations of Mexican hop harvest pickers are celebrated in liquid form by Yakima’s brewing trailblazers Bale Breaker. Each year, cocking a snook at Trump and his Border Wall bigotry, they are a major player in Sesiones del Migrante, a series of beers brewed in collaboration with Mexican and American breweries. Co-founder Meggan Quinn poured us the latest, a Mango IPA that defines ‘tropical’, in the brewery’s garden, sheltered by tall bines, for this is a working hop farm (its 1,000 acres have even even suppled the likes of BrewDog in the UK). 

The operation’s roots run deep. Megann’s great-grandparents planted the first nine rows of hops on the family farm back in 1932, a year before the end of Prohibition. Just a decade ago she, her husband and siblings persuaded initially sceptical parents a custom-built brewery on site might just work and it has. The beer are so popular across the Pacific North-West they don’t need to export. Topcutter IPA and Field 41 pale ale are their flagship beers.

What astonished us about one of the world’s premier hop-growing regions was the lack until recently of local breweries tapping into the resource… or speciality beer bars. That’s all changing fast on the back of Bale Breaker’s impetus. One of their brewers, former wildlife biologist Chris Baum, and four buddies set up their own brewing operation, Varietal with the premise of wild yeasts, sours, fruit beers and barrel-ageing – the fun, cutting edge stuff.

Check out the Hop Country Beer Trail or sniff around the taprooms of the Old North Yakima Historic District, where the closure of the Northern Pacific Railroad once hit the town hard. Now, as in so many other similar places, this is where the cool fight back begins. Highly recommended is Single Hill with its attractive taproom and terrace, serving the like of Cerveza blonde ale or or Island Reverie, a benchmark guava and passionfruit sour.    

Cider, or what they call hard cider, is a refreshing alternative to beer. The custom-built Tieton Cider Works on the edge of town offers sampling tours. With apples and other fruit sourced from the family’s own organic orchards it’s a clean tasting product, a world away from our own trad scrumpy; we loved the smoked pumpkin cider.

The best restaurant in town is Crafted on North 1st Street. Dan Koommoo is in the kitchen and his wife Mollie front of house. The couple chose Yakima because Mollie’s family is from these parts; Thai-born Dan is a James Beard-nominated Cordon Bleu chef with a glittering cv. Together they have created a casual contemporary dining space, from oysters to cocktails a total delight.

Sunday mornings are for mooching around town. We kicked off with excellent coffee and double fudge brownies at the Essencia Artisan Bakery, a short walk from the historic Capitol Theater. Rebuilt after a fire in 1975, it allegedly hosts the ghost of Shorty McCall, a technician during the 1930s, who hanged himself there after an ill-fated love affair. 

Dating back to 1912, the Sports Center – so-called because of a hunting theme not because it’s a place to play basketball – is equally haunted with staff reporting eerie chills and the sound of clinking glassware. All this dates back to the days when it was a brothel with Mafia connections.

Our Downtown Yakima lodging, the Hotel Maison has a more benign but equally striking history. Six storeys high, it was built in 1911 during the boom times by prosperous Freemasons as their club. Crowning glory was the hugely ornate Masonic ceremonial temple on the top floor, designed to replicate the throne room of King Solomon’s Temple. Long mothballed, it has survived the building’s conversion to a hotel, 

Elsewhere the comfortable hotel’s decor playfully celebrates its Masonic past and, of course, the pre-eminence of the hop. On our Saturday night there we sipped complimentary Tieton cider and watched the weekly ‘paseo’ of vintage automobiles, all adding to the period charm of the place.

The best place to sample Washington wine Downtown is the Gilbert Cellars, showcasing the family’s wines such as Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. It saves having to trek out to their vineyard tasting room, but when in wine country it would be wrong not to sample in the wineries, all within easy reach of Yakima town.

I’d recommend the folksy Owen Roe Winery, an organically farmed estate whose reds are particularly impressive, the nearby Treveri Cellars, (tours for $50) sparkling wine specialists run by a German winemaker, whose top bottles have been served at White House receptions. 

Still the hop remains king hereabouts. A quintessential time to visit Yakima (fly into Seattle two and a half hours’ drive away) is autumn when the valley hosts its annual Fresh Hop Festival. This year’s date is October 5. A unique array of beers made with newly harvested ‘green’ hops showcases the individual character of each variety. Now that’s not to be sniffed at!

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