written by Joseph Bair
In 1978, President Carter passed the law legalizing beer making. The hops, yeast and malt industry geared up for the new phenomenon of artisan brewers. They sponsored craft beer festivals and conventions with information, samples and presentations of their commodity. Hopunion was a noticeable name with the intent to provide hops only for craft beer. It eventually would be run by the two Ralphs—Ralph Olson and Ralph Woodall.
This article is about just one of the Ralphs—Ralph Olson. Born in Spokane and raised in Yakima, Washington, where fruit is plentiful and hops grow tall. This area produces three-quarters of the hops grown in the U.S. Ralph picked fruit as a kid and after college, he got his hop job the way every beer lover should—at the local watering hole!
Ralph began in the hop fields in 1978; he took up nearly every job there. On April 1, 1980, he was hired by Hopunion Raiser, a German-owned company dating back to 1809, quite different from the company Hopunion, LLC is today. Both Olson and Woodall advanced to the top when most of Hopunion Raiser’s assets were sold and Hopunion, LLC was spun-off in 2001. They correctly assumed the relationship between experienced hop growers and the new artisan craft brewers—who would liberally use the quality hops—was the formula for success.
Olson remembers the pioneers of the craft beer industry in the early 80s, like Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada. He recalls, “I was like a flashback, sitting down with Ken in Chico, California and drinking the future Sierra Nevada beers made with the ‘brewers cut.’ He told me that after a few hoppy beers he was thinking what we all are thinking now, ‘This is the future…I want to be part of it.’ The ‘brewers cut’ is what hop merchants offer brewers as the finished product, it is cut out of every fiftieth 200-pound bale in a lot.”
Hopunion, LLC owners are now hop growers. Ralph is a solid grader because he knows all of the problems that can happen: from the planting of the rhizomes, growing and harvesting, and even the best hops evaluated at harvest time in a field can be damaged from picking, processing, drying, cooling, packaging and transporting flaws. Note: hop bales are also inspected by the Washington Hop Commission for disease, insect, leaf/stem & seed content as part of weight.
Ralph’s hop presentations showed the careful harvest, curing, packaging and shipping in the hop fields and Hopunion factories. Ralph talked like he had been there, done that, and that his backbone was a hop trellis weighted with bines. By all accounts, he was a fun guy and a humorous, ball-buster broker at the same time. He knew how to identify the multitude of flaws in hops when making bulk buys. He received, graded and inspected hops bought by Hopunion and then sold them to craft breweries in the U.S. and around the world. Ralph Olsen was the most important exporting hop man in craft brewing.
To differentiate beers, different hop breeds would need to emerge. Ralph made Hopunion partners with Hop Breeding Company, LLC. It no longer depended on the USDA’s public hop program to do this. Ralph said, “Public Hops became a failed program.” Mostly because the USDA was driven by the macros for the old world hop flavor grown in the new world. He said that thousands of new breeds were never brought to market and certain varieties that exist in the market today had their origin in “failed” USDA research. Hopunion merged with Yakima Chief in 2006. “The Chief ” deals solely with International and macro brewers.
Thirty-two years later, in 2010, he left Hopunion. “It’s different today,” he paused, “more corporate hop farm’s management and less hop farmers to talk with.” You could say he is “back to the roots” of the hop business. I buy my rhizomes from RNV Enterprises, a company run in the spring by Ralph and Vickie (his wife,who also worked at Hopunion). He helps his two daughters run a drive-thru espresso stand in Yakima called Rush Coffee. The rest of the time, he fixes and sells old workhorse trucks.
Ralph was awarded the Homebrew Recognition Award by the Brewers Association ten years ago for his early work in craft beer and homebrew. Not to mention, Ralph was the “Head Hop” of the twenty-first century hoppy revolution which started in the fourteenth century. There is a chivalric code award that goes back to the beginning use of hops in beer. It is called “The Order of the Hop” which is awarded to individuals who advance hop culture, including the stable delivery of the product, like Ralph and his mentor, Ernie Netter, have done.
The award would be given to those who help encourage hops to fortify ale. Its rival, gruit, had mixing houses which were controlled by the government, nobles and monasteries. The herbal/ spice recipes were kept secret. Gruit houses had command of folk medicines administered to the people through drinking “ale,” which was the same as drinking water back then. The battle of evil and good were tied to descriptors of hops back then as either the “pernicious and wicked weed” or the “noble herb” that “The Order of the Hop” promoted.
The history of the award goes back to 1409, when John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy and King of Brabant initiated the award in memory of Duke Gambrinus (Jean Primus, John I, or John the Victorious). Gambrinus is believed to be the inventor of hopped malted beer. Yes—it took almost five hundred years before ale (un-hopped) and beer (hopped) had the same meaning.
The motto of “The Order of the Hop” is “Ego Sileo” (I keep silent). I asked Ralph about his knowledge of folk medicinal use of hops, expecting him to reveal the rationale of why it took so long for savory hops to be accepted in ale. I hypothesized hops only relative Cannabaceae or hop phytoestrogens. Suddenly, there was commotion on the other end of the line. Ralph gallantly said he had to go, thus leaving the deep secrets esoteric—and true to the motto!