YAKIMA – Firefighters battled a blaze Monday at a 40,000-square-foot hop warehouse operated by one of the industry leaders while industry insiders began to assess the fire’s possible impact on the global hop market.
The United States produces 24 percent of the world’s hops, which are used to brew beer. The vast majority are grown in the Pacific Northwest, in particular central Washington’s Yakima Valley.
The fire broke out at the S.S. Steiner Inc. warehouse shortly before noon Monday and by midafternoon had engulfed most of the building, sending plumes of smoke and the pungent aroma of hops into the city. The cause of the blaze was not immediately known, though fires have been a perennial, expensive problem at hop warehouses.
Some resin-loaded hop varieties are known to “self-heat” or spontaneously combust once baled.
Company President Paul Signorotti declined comment Monday. S.S. Steiner is part of the Germany-based Steiner Group, one of the largest international hop growing, trading and processing companies in the world. The company’s Yakima enterprise manages its North American hop buying and processing, according to the company Web site.
Hops were a $77 million crop in Washington state in 2004. More than 40 families grow hops in the Yakima Valley, which is dotted with orchards, vineyards and farm fields.
Many growers then sell their hops to one of four large merchants in the valley: Steiner, John I. Haas Inc., the grower-owned cooperative Yakima Chief, and Hop Union, which specializes in the craft brewing industry.
Steiner also is one of the larger growers in the valley, said Ann George, administrator of the Washington Hops Commission, an industry marketing group funded by member fees.
“They handle a large volume of the crop, but they have multiple warehouses,” George said. “Depending on what variety or varieties were involved in this incident, if it was a variety that was already in short supply, that could have an impact on price and availability.”
The number of bales in the building and their value were not immediately known.
Seventeen varieties of hops are grown in the United States – the aroma varieties, which are often added for flavor or fragrance, and the bitter alpha varieties.
Now that the surplus of the late 1990s is largely spent, growers have been optimistic about harvesting the 2006 crop, hoping for higher prices.
However, some growers already experienced lower yields due to high July temperatures for some aroma varieties, such as Willamette, George said.
“The crop already was somewhat mixed,” she said. “If we just burned a substantial volume of an already short crop, this fire will have a much bigger impact.”
Hop growers and brewers will celebrate their industry Oct. 7 in Yakima during the Fourth Annual Fresh Hop Ale Festival, which features live music, food and about a dozen microbreweries that use Yakima hops straight from the vine within 24 hours to create their ale.
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