There's little or no organized tourism industry for hops in the Yakima Valley, which is best known for wine grapes. But the valley grows 80 percent of the U.S. crop of the beer-flavoring blossom. This self-guided tour of hop fields and craft brewers puts you in the heart of craft-beer country.

PROSSER, Benton County — Sniff. Swirl. Sip. A hint of apricot in the blond liquid. The next sample: coriander prickling the tongue. Finale: in the darkest, a kiss of cherry.

All three: that unmistakable bitter taste that comes from hops.

Sniffing, swirling and sipping are part of the whole tasting ritual for visitors to Central Washington’s wine country, particularly in this small town, its epicenter. However, I’d detoured from the wine road and was on the ale trail in search of what was brewing in the Land of the Hop.

With due respect to beer geeks, those aficionados of true craft beer — some traveling from as far as Switzerland and Germany to sip the local brews — this wasn’t a sophisticated sampling, but just a taste of the Yakima Valley’s hops, from plant to product.

It is the hop vine’s flower, whether dried, used in pellet or extract form, or fresh plucked, that gives a brew its degree of bitterness and aroma when added to beer’s other key ingredients: malt, water and yeast.

A long, hoppy history

Hops have been grown here in the Yakima Valley since Charles Carpenter brought roots from his father’s New York farm and planted them in 1868 just west of present-day Yakima. By the early 1900s hop crops stretched from Moxee to the Lower Yakima Valley, where today they continue to grow — in an area more widely known now as wine country.

In 2010, Washington state produced nearly 80 percent of the U.S. hop crop, most of which was grown on some 24,000 acres in the Yakima Valley. The industry — from the cultivated hop yards and processing plants to craft breweries that use them — attracts visitors from as far away as Asia, Europe and South America.

Hop-country tourism, though, remains uncharted territory. You won’t find any hop growers making the brew and serving it in a tasting room on the farm like their winemaking vintner counterparts. With no “Hop Country” maps available, I used the oenophile’s guide to the area, to create my two-day tour through miles of hop vines, with stops at four brew pubs.

First stop

Hours before the tiny tap room opened for sampling at Yakima Craft Brewing Company, I found brewmaster and founder Jeff Winn whirling between tanks, a batch of brew in the making at his 3-year-old company tucked away in an industrial area in northwest Yakima (2920 River Road; 509-654-7357 or www.yakimacraftbrewing.com).

“I began as a home brewer and worked for 20 years in technology,” he said, “I moved the family up from Portland. The hop is here. The weather is here.”

Winn was right about the hops. On my tour, the first trellis-filled fields appeared along Highway 24 between Yakima and Moxee, population 3,308, a town that’s called itself the “Hop Capital of the World” for so long that no one is quite sure when the slogan came to be. One story is that it once appeared as that in the Guinness Book of World Records and it’s been used ever since. Surrounded by hop yards, Moxee swells in size the first weekend of August when its annual, decades-old Moxee Hop Festival draws thousands to celebrate hop harvest.

Midday Moxee streets were empty when I drove through, but at the 1950s-style Big Red’s Diner (110 Holly Drive, 509-575-0070) a half-dozen farmers lunched at a large center table — called The Farmers Table — discussing picking equipment, irrigation and processing. None, I noted, had ordered the house specialty, Big Red’s Belly Buster, a $15 two-pound hamburger.

Dust blew from the hop yards framing Faucher (“foe-shay”) Road as I followed it south from Moxee to Konnowac Pass Road, a paved two-laner that twists and turns over Rattlesnake Ridge to the Lower Yakima Valley. This less-traveled route provides sweeping views of orchards, vineyards and hop yards.

From Konnowac Pass, I headed to the Donald-Wapato Road (Exit 44 from Interstate 82) to see one of the few remaining early-1900s wood-framed hop-drying kilns. Built by the Herke family in 1926, the hop kiln’s image appears on the wine labels of nearby Piety Flats Winery (2560 Donald-Wapato Road; www.pietyflatswinery.com).

A whole museum for hops

Ten miles south, in Toppenish, a town whose slogan is “Where the West Still Lives,” I spent an hour at the American Hop Museum (22 S. B St.; 509-865-4677 or www.americanhopmuseum.com).

Housed in a building near the old Northern Pacific Railway station (also a museum), the hop museum tells the vine’s story from colonists’ cultivation in the 1600s to modern-day harvest through an array of photos, equipment, tools, gadgets and curious paraphernalia. Early-day cultivation and harvesting equipment is displayed outside.

Museum board President Mary Jane Craigen, whose family raised hops for more than a century, recommends visiting at harvest time, roughly Aug. 15 to Sept. 30, when the vines and their flower-laden arms are cut from the 18-foot trellises that support them. “When they are harvesting, the air is just filled with the scent of hops. It’s wonderful.”

Most hop growers don’t offer tours at any time, particularly during harvest, but Diana and Stacy Puterbaugh, fourth-generation Mabton-area hop growers, do host prearranged group tours at their 700-acre Puterbaugh Farms, which grows 13 varieties of hops for their Hops Direct wholesaling business (686 Green Valley Road, Mabton; 888-972-3616 or www.hopsdirect.com). They also produce pickled hop shoots, hop tea and hop soap, all sold on their website.

Quenching a thirst

It was a $5, four-beer sampler at Prosser’s Horse Heaven Hills Brewery that provided a real taste of hop country. Its cozy tasting room opens to the brew house for front-row viewing on brewing days. Owners and longtime friends, Gary and Carol Vegar and Dave and Brenda Keller, opened the 2-year-old brewery in what was a 1960s-era Laundromat, off an auto-parts store parking lot (1118 Meade Ave.; 509-781-6400 or www.horseheavenhillsbrewery.com).

A few blocks away at Whitstran Brewing Company, owner/brewer Larry Barbus serves his premium and seasonal ales in a kid-friendly cafe, which he describes as being “patterned after a traditional public ale house.” There’s a full menu of food and brew, with a special nonalcoholic orange cream soda that tasted like a melted Creamsicle (1427 Wine Country Road; 509-786-4922 or www.whitstranbrewing.com).

I finished my tour at Sunnyside’s Snipes Mountain Brewery & Restaurant (905 Yakima Valley Highway; 509-837-2739 or www.snipesmountain.com), where the glass-enclosed brew house is visible from the kid-friendly restaurant. Daytime diners at this lodgelike place can see brewmaster Chad Roberts creating more than a dozen brews that are served on tap.

I’d come full circle. Their featured brew: Moxee Pale Ale.

Jackie Smith, a Kirkland-based freelance writer, grew up in Yakima and formerly reported for the Yakima Herald-Republic.