By Bruce Pokarney, Oregon Department of Agriculture
For the Oregon Beer Growler
While you quietly sip a beer this month, it’s more than likely that Judy Parent and Erin Harding were painstakingly picking leaves and stems from the Oregon hops that might be an ingredient of that brew. The two women aren’t necessarily cleaning up the hops but, in fact, inspecting samples of this year’s harvest for seeds, leaves and stems — the undesirable elements of hops.
It’s an annual six-week ritual performed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Inspection Program. The state’s $34.5 million hop industry depends on grading done by ODA.
“ODA provides an invaluable service,” says Michelle Palacios, administrator of the Oregon Hops Commission. “Hops are sold on contract. In order to market the product, growers need an accurate analysis of their crop. The greater the accuracy, the greater the confidence brewers have in Oregon hops.”
Each “lot” of hops grown in Oregon is sampled and inspected for seed, leaf and stem content. That’s the job of a close-knit team of inspectors — some of whom are retirees who have already given years of full-time service to ODA in other jobs. Now they work hard and fast, but only in August and September after hops are harvested.
Once inspected, the grower receives a certificate for that lot. The sale to the brewer is based on that certificate. The lower the percentage of seed, leaf and stem, the better the price of the hops. ODA inspectors are considered third-party participants. They don’t take sides in the process, but merely determine the percentage.
“We have a very good relationship with the growers,” says Randy Black, who manages the seasonal inspection program. “They know we are unbiased, honest, very precise and accurate.”
Each sample is identified by a number corresponding to the appropriate grower. Most of the hops come from nearby fields as a majority of the crop in Oregon is grown in the area between St. Paul, Woodburn and Mt. Angel. The Salem-based “inspection facility” is not some kind of high-tech clean room with white tables and antiseptic walls, but it is appropriate for what needs to happen. Up to a half-dozen inspectors gather daily during the season to do what they do best — sift through hops with tweezers in search of leaves and stems.
“It’s a fairly easy job to do and just a matter of looking closely at the hops to be sure you pick out all the leaves and stems from the sample,” says Parent, who has come back every summer for 15 years to help out. This is after three decades of service to ODA as the agency’s payroll coordinator.
“My only challenge in this job is that I laugh a lot,” says the 20-something Harding, who also does other commodity inspection work for ODA. “If you laugh, cough or sneeze when your face is close to the hops, those hops blow everywhere.”
The inspectors typically pick through 80-110 grams at a time once the hops have been put through an eighth-inch screen to remove the fine debris. Once all the leaves and stems have been removed from the sample, a percentage is determined after the hops are reweighed. A separate process is designed to find seeds. A sample that is between 40-60 grams is baked for two hours at 118 degrees. After baking, the sample is threshed until individual seeds remain. They are counted and another percentage is calculated. It all sounds like an old-fashioned recipe for some unique brew. In fact, the only thing cooked up are some numbers and percentages that translate into the price of the crop — something important to both grower and buyer.
“Buyers could start docking the grower right off the top if there is more leaf, stem or seed than the contract calls for,” says Black. “If there is too much, the lot can be rejected.”
Growers receive premiums if the samples are cleaner than average or deductions if they aren’t. ODA inspection means quite a bit to both parties.
Oregon ranks second, only behind Washington, in hop production. Last year, 6,600 acres produced 10.6 million pounds of hops in Oregon. The Pacific Northwest produces nearly all of the nation’s hops and about 30 percent of the world’s supply. This year’s acreage strung for harvest has increased 16 percent compared to 2015. Acreage has gone up 57 percent the past five years while the value has remained relatively steady.
The 2016 crop appears to be average quality. Warm spring temperatures led to some early bloom for certain aroma hop varieties, but the mild July helped steady the growth.
With the arrival of a booming craft brewing scene in Oregon, the rest of the U.S., and internationally, the world of hops has changed a bit.
“The hop industry has several large dealer/merchants that growers contract with to purchase their hops,” says Palacios. “Over the course of the past decade, growers have increasingly marketed at least a percentage of their crop directly to craft brewers. The success of the craft industry can be attributed, in part, to success in telling their story to their customer. And when a brewer can directly source hops from a grower, they can continue to tell that story through the hops and the beer they make with those hops. Generally, craft brewers seek the connection to their raw materials. With the Oregon hop growing region in such close proximity to Oregon’s craft brewers, the relationship between the two industries has continued to grow.”
Just as ODA’s commodity inspectors are a band of specialized workers, so are those who grow hops in Oregon. There are only about 30 multi-generational family farms producing hops in the entire state. A few new hop growers have emerged in recent years as the strong market attracts farmers who might want to consider getting into the business. However, hop production on a commercial scale requires a significant up-front investment, which is a limiting factor for many would-be growers.
It is truly an industry that remains all in the family. And for the inspectors who look at the product? For six weeks each year, it’s like a family reunion.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.