Yakima hop grower brews to show what his hops can do

YAKIMA — Foam shoots from the lip of a freshly filled bottle of lager in the research brewery at John I. Haas.

Virgil McDonald likes what he sees,

“Ah yeah, look at that foam,” says McDonald, the research brewer for the nation’s largest hop supplier, which celebrated its 100th anniversary over the weekend.

As he finishes off a test run inside the room full of reflective metal vats and computerized equipment, McDonald works like a researcher but acts more like a home brewer in his garage with a few buddies.

All but licking their lips as they work, McDonald and assistant Martin Hodel use the state-of-the art equipment to brew a 50-gallon batch of Helles — a German style lager — for internal taste testing.

For kicks, McDonald named one batch Helle Buoy. His jokes somehow carry over the loud hum that echoes in the room. Ask him to name his favorite beer, he’ll tell you it’s the one in his hand.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s been a blast.”

The beer-making equipment is part of the company’s 1-year-old, 24,000-square-foot facility called the Innovation Center, the latest chapter for an enterprise that started a century ago when Washington, D.C., merchant John I. Haas first started trading hops between the United States and Europe.

The Haas Innovation Center includes the brewery, a laboratory and meeting space at the Haas plant at 1600 River Road in Yakima. The center also has a private taproom and beer garden resembling traditional German villages.

The facility is just across the parking lot from Haas’ massive hop processing plant.

The brewery is one of only six or seven of its kind in the world, said company officials. A few universities or research organizations use them but almost never hop suppliers.

The equipment is expensive. The Innovation Center property has a new construction value of $3.4 million, according to the Yakima County Assessor’s Office.

The brewery uses equipment similar to that of commercial brewers like Anheuser-Busch, only much smaller, but the company has no intention of making and marketing its own beer. The goal is simply to show clients what its hops can do. In fact, last week, a group of visiting Japanese buyers tasted some beer.

“We say, here’s the hop, and by the way, here’s the beer,” said Scott Garden, technical director for John I. Haas.

The brewery will benefit the nation’s entire hops industry, which is centered in the Yakima Valley, said Ann George, administrator of the Washington Hops Commission and Hop Growers of America, a Yakima-based trade association. Investing in technology is a necessary part of the game, she said.

“That’s what we have to do to make sure we can stay ahead of the customer base,” George said.

Yakima County produces virtually all of the state’s commercial hops and Washington produced about 80 percent of the hops in the United States last year, according to the Hop Growers of America.

The U.S. crop was worth $250 million that year, while U.S. brewers did $100 billion in sales, according to the Brewers Association.

The Haas brewery works with small craft breweries, which purchase about one-third of the Valley’s hops, and giants such as Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Heineken, which still crank out 90 percent of the world’s beer, said Timothy Kostelecky, senior manager for technical services at Haas.

There’s been quite a change over the past century.

Farmers first planted hops in the Valley around 1900 when railroads and irrigation reached the area.

John I. Haas opened Yakima Golding Farms in 1931. The farm and trading company eventually became the largest private hop company in the world with roughly 4,000 acres in both the Northwest United States and British Columbia.

In 1978, the corporation joined the Barth-Haas Group, a Nuremberg, Germany-based consolidation of global hop corporations that dates back to 1794. Members include firms in Germany, England, Australia, China and the United States.

Today, the Haas company maintains headquarters in Washington, D.C., but runs processing and research facilities in Yakima. The firm has about 1,200 acres of its own hops in the Toppenish area and storage facilities in Oregon and Yakima.

The German portion of the group has a similar research brewery in St. Johann, Germany.

The Innovation Center replaces a laboratory formerly located in a brick building at the corner of Yakima and First avenues, where agronomy and chemistry labs were inefficiently separated and oil testing as part of the hops research caused the whole building to stink.

About 50 employees work in the facility. When built, the company added about 10 to its workforce of about 200.

“It’s much nicer” in the new building, said Cheryl Ermey, a laboratory technician, as she sent samples of beer through an extraction machine.

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