Feds Hop Into Hops Fire Probe

Firefighters battle a blaze which gutted a hop storage warehouse owned by S.S. Steiner in Yakima, Wash., Monday, Oct. 2, 2006. The cause of the fire is under investigation. (AP Photo/Yakima Herald-Republic, Gordon King)
AP Photo/Yakima Herald-Republic
Federal investigators were set Tuesday to begin an investigation into a fire that ruined about 4 percent of America's yield of hops, used as flavoring in the brewing of beer and ale.

The fire started shortly before noon Monday in a 40,000-square-foot warehouse operated by S.S. Steiner Inc., one of the four largest hop buyers in the Yakima Valley of central Washington. By mid-afternoon flames engulfed most of the building, sending up plumes of smoke and a pungent aroma.

Municipal fire crews, aided by regional firefighters, ripped away metal siding to shoot water directly onto the hops.

Based on an industry official's estimate of the quantity of hops in the warehouse, the loss was thought to be about $5 million.

It shouldn't affect beer prices, however, because it takes just a fifth of a pound of dried hops to make a 31-gallon barrel of beer.

The United States produces 24 percent of the world's hops, and about three-fourths of the U.S. crop comes from the Yakima Valley. Hops were a $77 million crop in Washington state in 2004. More than 40 families grow hops in the valley, which is dotted with orchards, vineyards and farms.

Fires have long been an expensive danger at hop warehouses, largely because of the potential for spontaneous combustion from heat buildup in bales of resin-loaded varieties.

One factor might have been that the warehouse contained bales of "super alpha" hops, known to be more unstable for storage because of higher amounts of oils and resins, officials told the Yakima Herald-Republic.

"That's just a possibility that we'll look at," East Valley Deputy Chief Mike Riel told the newspaper, "but it is very high on the list."

No one was in the warehouse when the fire started, Riel said.

With the fire under control Monday night, authorities told the newspaper an investigation into the cause would be led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Steiner is part of the Steiner Group of Germany, one of the largest international hop growing, trading and processing companies in the world. The Yakima branch manages Steiner's North American buying and processing, according to the company Web site.

Besides being one of the largest growers in the valley, Steiner is one of three large merchants that buy from other growers in the area. The others are John I. Haas Inc., the grower-owned cooperative Yakima Chief and Hop Union, which specializes in sales to craft brewers.

The fire destroyed or ruined about 10,000 bales, each weighing about 200 pounds and likely worth $1.75 to $2 a pound, Ann George, administrator of the Washington Hops Commission in nearby Moxee, told the Herald-Republic.

Seventeen varieties of hops are grown in the United States, including aroma varieties which are added for flavor or fragrance and the bitter alpha varieties.