Case Studies

Kevin Riel – Double R Hop Ranches

In pursuit of unending hoppiness

Time was when hops were just another agricultural commodity. Much like a kernel of wheat, once processed there wasn’t much difference among these little cone-like flowers regardless of where they were grown.

“Well, since then, the whole craft beer movement has changed what it’s like to be a hop farmer,” Kevin Riel tells Terra Firma in March as another planting season gets underway in Central Washington’s Yakima Valley. “Right now, it has us playing the waiting game.”

Riel is the third-generation president of Double R Hops Ranches and a fourth-generation hop farmer. Some years he’s overseen the growing of 15 varieties of hops while early in his career, just one. His options include more than 100 and, depending on need, figuring out how much acreage to commit for each selection.

Kevin Riel | President | Double R Hop Ranches

Kevin Riel | President | Double R Hop Ranches

“The mix changes every year,” he says. “Right now, we’re removing year-old fields and replacing them with what’s in demand.”

Come autumn harvest, he’ll provide his primary distributors, Yakima Chief Hops and John I. Haas, with the old reliables used in production of major beer brands and on the craft beer scene.

That’ll likely include the Citra hop whose high alpha acid lends itself to the smooth floral and citrus aroma and flavor of India pale ales. And the Mosaic hop whose combination of citrus and pine also makes for a hearty IPA. For a more bitter IPA or amber ale, the Simcoe hop fits the bill. Then there’s the Amarillo hop with its flowery, spicy and orange aroma.

Hopping to efficiency

All those hops are now grown and processed more efficiently with Double R’s facilities having undergone upgrades and technology implementations that couldn’t have been imagined when Riel’s forbearers established Double R in 1945.

While the Yakima Valley’s high-desert hot and dry summer is ideal for this crop, the hops still need to be irrigated and water is not to be wasted even with five reservoirs filled by Cascade Mountain snowmelt to the west. Through technology, there’s soil moisture monitoring and the amount of fertilizer and dripped water for each plant automated by need.

“Before this we’d put a lot of fertilizer over the fields and run water down ditches and hope the proper amount soaked in,” Riel says. “It was all done by hand, someone needing to use a shovel and move water. Some plants barely got enough while others got too wet. With this system it’s ‘feet wet and head dry,’ which hops love.”

Kevin Riel | President | Double R Hop Ranches

Come picking time, a truck pulls into what’s known as a double Dauenhauer harvester that plucks the hops off 18-foot-high vines. Then it’s off to a centralized harvesting and drying facility assembled last year by Columbia River Steel & Construction that’s replaced two such smaller facilities. What an improvement this has been, Riel citing the need for 9.5 percent moisture content.

It’s achieved in 15 drying kilns, each 32-by-32 feet. Stacked 28 inches deep, the hops undergo a nine- to 11-hour drying process that recirculates hot air to minimize what had been heavy propane dependency. Once the hot air ceases, the hops are cooled to an ambient temperature over a couple hours.

Then it’s off to the baling and conditioning room also built by Columbia River Steel & Construction. Here the hops are mixed with no human hand touching the product, thereby assuring whole perfect cones. Again, they’re dried to a 9.5 percent moisture level and pressed into 200-pound bales for the distributors.

While his farm occasionally sells direct to customers, Riel prefers to grow and process the flowers, and entrust distribution to Yakima Chief Hops—of which Double R is part-owner—and John I. Haas.

Test of time

Double R’s been doing this well enough to be the hops go-to for more than 100 exclusive customers. Like most any agricultural operation, it’s had its ebbs and flows over the past few years, what with the COVID-19 pandemic causing a surplus of hops and decreased prices.

Riel says clientele have been especially price-conscientious and concerned about buying from a sustainable grower, and he’s confident Double R has those bases covered.

“Now our focus turns to our brewer customers and ensuring we remain relevant to them,” he says. “We know them well.”

He also knows the spider mites and aphids well, but his integrated pest-management system keeps them from wreaking havoc on the hops. So as spring progresses in the Yakima Valley, Double R pushes on, its labor force enhanced by the H-2A program that allows Riel to hire and house Mexican nationals for seasonal work. Meanwhile, there’s a fourth generation being trained to take over once Riel has had enough of his boots-on-the-ground oversight, though he says that day is far from imminent.

Kevin Riel | President | Double R Hop Ranches

Still, it’s good that his daughter, Jessica, has opted for the family business. A University of Washington grad with an MBA from City University of Seattle, she returned to Double R as operations manager in 2015 and more recently has become a part owner.

She’s in good company, with her father as president and her uncle Keith and cousin Steve heavily involved. How this arrangement sustains a legacy, Riel says, describing how grandfather Willie and his two brothers learned about hops farming from their father and leased 80 acres on the Yakama Reservation. It’s stayed in the family since, with the present leadership augmenting hops with Concord grapes.

Forty or so years ago, Riel—a Central Washington University graduate with a degree in computer information systems—wasn’t certain this would be his life. But there’s something about life down on the farm that has him doing what his father and his father’s father have done at Double Hop.

“The family aspect and the close-knit nature of the hops industry is attractive,” he says. “It wasn’t my intended path but I’m glad I’m here and my degree in computers and business has come in handy.”

View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol. II 2023 Edition here.

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