Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Beer lovers benefit from committed WSDA hop inspection team

Mike Louisell

Drivers entering Yakima can’t miss the sign: “Yakima, the Palm Springs of Washington.” A good choice for another welcoming sign might be “Hop City, USA.”

The Washington Hop Commission, the Hop Growers of America and the American Hop Museum are all in Yakima or nearby towns. (However, the Washington Beer Commission is in Kirkland.)

Searching for hop leaves, stems and seeds
Grown on vines and with dozens of commercial varieties, hops are the key ingredient affecting the aroma, flavor and the bitter elements of beer. Forty growers in Yakima and Benton counties produce 75 percent of the hops grown in the U.S. The crop ranks as Washington’s 10th largest ag commodity, valued at $280 million, up 34 percent from 2014.

“Hops with high amounts of bitter acid are worth more,” said Mike Firman, program manager for WSDA's Chemical & Hop Laboratory. “And hops with high amounts of leaf and stem and seed are worth less. The market and the contract between growers and dealers determines by how much.”

WSDA’s lab hopping during hop season

With the growing popularity of craft brews, American pale ales and IPAs, WSDA is busier than ever supporting Washington’s hop industry.

The agency’s hops team—consisting of several permanent lab staff and up to 35 seasonal workers—sample, inspect, grade and certify hops with the growers paying a fee for the service. Even some growers from Oregon and Idaho truck part of their harvest to WSDA’s lab for inspection.

Hop harvest ends in October
Late August to mid-October is a hectic time for the lab team, according to Chris Wiseman, senior chemist and supervisor at the Chemical and Hop Lab. She has worked at the lab for 24 years.

“During harvest, we work seven days a week,” Chris noted. “We realize how important our work is for providing unbiased, neutral hop inspections.”

After putting the hops through a screen to remove fine debris, inspectors pick through to remove leaves and stems and look for unwanted seeds. Some customers also pay for the lab to determine the hops’ brewing value, the concentration of bitter acids in the hops.

Chris Wiseman, Chemical and Hop Lab
WSDA certification is necessary for growers to sell their hops. Growers get their inspection results quickly because lab staff emails them as soon as the process is completed. Use of barcodes links each lot of hops to its original grower.

On peak days, more than 100 lots are collected and sampled.

Chris said the peak was 140 lots in a single day, stretching staff capabilities to the max. Core samples from 350,000 bales this season have been analyzed for leaf, stem and seed content, surpassing last year’s 308,000 bales. Some 2,800 commodity inspection certificates were issued.

Hop workers get media spotlight

The Yakima Herald-Republic recently captured in words and photos the enormous effort it takes WSDA staff to support growers, dealers and brewers. So the next time you see a micro-beer in the store or on tap, or enjoy a cold brew, remember that it’s likely the hops in that product were grown in Washington and inspected by WSDA.