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Tiffany Pitra - There's a Reason We Hire Humans

Welcome to "AigoraCast", conversations with industry experts on how new technologies are transforming sensory and consumer science!

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Originally from Iowa, Tiffany Pitra relocated to Yakima, Washington in 2010 where she immediately fell in love with the hop industry. Tiffany holds a B.A. from the University of Northern Iowa and in 2014, she completed the UC Davis Applied Sensory and Consumer Science Certificate while building her first raw materials sensory program. She continues to be very active in the ASBC Sensory Subcommittee, helping validate sensory methods and hosting workshops at annual meetings. At Yakima Chief Hops, she is fortunate to align her professional goals with personal interests as she is passionate about hop quality, sensory education, and volunteering in the wider Yakima community.

Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)

John: So, Tiffany, welcome to the show. Thanks for being here.

Tiffany: Thanks for having me, John.

John: This is great. So I think actually, Tiffany, we can just start with a description of Yakima Chief and what it is that you all do there. That's something that maybe our listeners aren't so familiar with. I think it's really interesting kind of business model. And, of course, you play a really important role in the beer industry, especially in the craft industry. So it would be nice to hear your description of what it is the Yakima Chief does kind of broadly and then specifically in the sensory program, the sorts of things that you did there.

Tiffany: Sure, so Yakima Chief Hops is one hundred percent grower owned company, and we actually just receive Hops from growers in the Valley and we process them into other products. So brewing products specifically, and then we sell them to brewers around the world. So we're kind of that middle person between the grower and the brewer. And we really seek to connect those. We don't try to be in the middle too much. We try to actually bring them together. So connecting brewers to growers.

John: Right, so kind of adding value there. You know, I mean, you do your own research maybe that would fit into this. You can talk a little about the sensory program at Yakima Chief and what it is that you all do to help you know provide value between these two parties.

Tiffany: Sure. So our sensory program is responsible for multiple things. We have a responsibility to our brewing customers and then we also have a responsibility to our grower customers. So as Hops are delivered to Yakima Chief, we actually use our sensory panel to assess the aroma quality of all the hops that are delivered and those will get entered into our systems and that information will travel with them as they get further produced into other products. We are able to send all that data back to the growers as well so that they can use that information to inform some of the practices on the farm, whether that's timing, harvest correctly, the kiln temperature that they're going to use, how they bale the hops. So there's a lot of hops, have a lot of touch points, I guess. And we are helping monitor the process along the way and ensuring that quality is helped her out.

John: Right. I mean, it fascinates me, actually, because I don't know to what extent you've had a chance to see our Eye on AI articles that we publish every week on our blog. I mean, people are out there and they haven't had a chance to check out our blog. We've got Eye on AI every Friday. We've got the news that's at the intersection of artificial intelligence and consumer science. And there's a huge push right now for the precision farming, for using machine learning data kind of approaches for farming. And so it's really interesting to me that you all do that. So maybe you can talk a little about the sorts of data you're collecting, you know how it is. How do you grade hops? What's the process for like coming up with these numbers that might ultimately be valuable, you know, to the farmers inside some algorithm someday?

Tiffany: Yeah, so when hops are harvested, then they're produced into two hundred pound bales, those bales are loaded onto trucks and then delivered to our facility where they'll immediately go into cold storage. But before we put them into cold storage, we usually take out some core samples across the entire lot of hops and this could be, you know, two hundred bales. And we bring those into inventory and then we're actually going to take one of those samples and break it apart. So we'll look at the color of the hops sample to make sure that the greenness actually matches what we would expect of the variety. We're looking at the cross section of the hop cones to see if the lupulin content is tracking with what the total oil content should be and that variety as well. And then we're really looking to see the integrity of that material so we can tell by looking at it and touching it and even kind of smelling it if it's going to hold up in storage for a long period of time, if we need to process it really quickly. So when we put it in a tray, will actually take a picture of it to document that greenness color. And then we'll look at percent brown cones to green cones. The brown cones are really going to be an indicator of some type of damage, whether that's a pest that's come in, spider mites or it's powdery mildew or it was maybe harvested a little bit too late. We can also touch the sample and we rate a chatter rating. So if it's dry and dusty and chatter's super easily to the touch, we'll give it a low chatter rating. And that actually means that you're exposing those lupulin glands to oxygen and they're going to oxidize quickly and produce some pretty ugly off aromas. It will start to smell cheesy, rancid, sweaty socks and not something you really want in your beer. So, yeah, we'll assess all those different qualities visually and tactilely and be able to assign a number that says that our processors can look at and say, okay, this hop will store for a long time or it won't. We need to boost it forward in the production schedule. So, yeah, those are some of the systems that we use.

John: Now, that sounds like a lot of kind of quality control testing. Like you're trying to ensure that you've got some sort of reasonable quality. But are there also assessments for trying to characterize the hops? Because, you know, one thing I found really interesting because we've talked to Ali Schultz was on the show from New Belgium, Megan Peltz from Sierra Nevada, that is not necessarily the case, like hops can taste very different, but it'll be good in some sense, right? And that is, you know, there's an idea that different brewers are looking for different things. Is that something you're able to help your brewers find, find hops that match different profiles that they're interested in?

Tiffany: Absolutely. So we have in general, we're looking at overall quality, but then we have certain specifications for each variety as well. And it's pretty easy to have, you know, this established specification for total oil content or alpha acids, these brewing values that brewers are interested in. But when it comes to the sensory qualities, that's where it gets a little bit trickier. And what our panel can do is actually they assess all of the samples blindly and they fill out a descriptive analysis ballot. And we're able to kind of characterize how citrusy a sample is, how tropical one is. Maybe if there are any off aromas, they're going to identify those. And we're able to look at, you know, if we just take one variety, for example, all the citrus samples that we receive that year and the year previous, and we can kind of compare that lot against them and see if it fits within what we would expect of that variety. Brewers are, you know, used to focus just on better acids. And it was just, you know, maybe the sensory qualities weren't actually something that people were looking into, but now dry hopping, everyone's more interested in. What's the actual? How citrusy is this going to make citrusy beer? So we try to provide very specific aroma descriptions for each lot that comes in. And then our team internally can actually use, this is more the sales team. They'll use that information to help select what lots are going to go in front of our brewing customers for them to choose to fill their contract for the rest of the year. So we can actually take historical data from, you know brewers will come in, they'll select their hops. They've told us for the variety Citra, they're looking for, you know, high citrus, maybe grapefruit notes, tropical fruit, maybe there's a little bit of wittiness. And that's the lot that they selected last year. And our team internally can take that information and then compare it against our notes for all the incoming lots for this year and say flag that specific lot. And we're going to show that to Sierra Nevada or we're going to show that one to New Belgium, for instance. So try to match them up with lots that we think will help them brew the beer that they want consistently.

John: And are they typically going to get the same variety they got from the year before? Is it possible that from year to year the variability is so high that it might be even be a different variety is appropriate that has the same profile? How does it, you know, the natural variation? It's amazing to me that people can take these naturally occurring. I would try to say this, like beer. There's so much variability in beer. The fact that you can root beer from year to year and have it taste consistently the same is completely amazing to me. There's so many variables at work. So, you know, what's the space in which the you all play in the Brewers play when it comes to trying to create that consistency?

Tiffany: You know, typically they're working with the same varieties year over year. But there have been instances where there is maybe a variety shortage or, you know, something happened during the growing year that it just didn't produce the most citrusy, Citra that they want, I guess. So it's definitely possible. And it really is up to the brewer to be aware of that. So we'll talk to them about how harvest went and talked to me about the varieties and how they performed. And, you know, I've talked to some brewers where they may be evaluated a citrus sample and they thought, wow, this is just this is the one we're going to purchase. It's the best one on the table and happens to have a lot higher cati aroma than we typically expect from this variety. And that would be kind of the campy aroma that's come out of hops. And small amounts that's really an okay thing. But some tasters will reject that if it's too high into concentration. So knowing that they decided, okay, well, we're actually just going to back off and supplement with a different variety to kind of balance that out and make our IPA taste the right amount of cati for our consumers.

John: Yeah, that's fascinating. So, okay, well, we've talked a lot about harvest, so maybe it would be good also to talk a little bit about what harvest is, because this, you know, it's coming up for you all. It's a huge event. Megan talked about harvest as well. Maybe just get your perspective. What is harvest? And then maybe we can talk a little bit about how it's being affected by the pandemic and some of the practical considerations going along with pandemic.

Tiffany: Sure, hop harvest is knocking on our door. I think we're getting hops from Oregon this weekend and I'm expecting to smell my first sample of the year on Wednesday so I can sort of there's this low buzz of excitement throughout the building. We're all just waiting for it to start. Well, yeah, hop harvest, you know, for us in the Pacific Northwest, it's going to involve Oregon, Idaho and Washington. And we have cold storage facilities in all three states that growers can go and just get their bale hops as quickly as possible. But, yeah, everything needs to take place before that first frost, and that's really variable, but usually early October. So it's kind of a scramble. And, you know, that involves cutting down the vine, picking all the individual hop cones off of the vine, separating it from the vine and leaf material. Then they have to kill those hops, condition those hops for up to 24 hours or so, then they'll bale them and then send them to our facility. So it's sort of a mad rush. I don't think growers sleep, you know this is what they wait for all year. So it's a really exciting time for us in the industry.

John: And normally a huge number of people come to the Pacific Northwest for harvest. Is that correct?

Tiffany: Yeah, as where a grower owned company that tries to, you know, connect growers and brewers, this is really the time of year where we get to do that. So we actually host a lot of field tours and we get people to connect with growers and walk through their facilities and see all of the hard work that goes into producing the hops on the table. And this year, yeah, we’re actually not hosting any brewers on our facility. They still have the opportunity to go visit growers and make those arrangements. But we want to keep everyone safe and our team safe. And it would be terrible if a whole farm had to be shut down because of Covid-19. So we're trying to take as many precautions as possible, but we're still able to connect with brewers over the long distance. So it's just going to be a little bit delayed. We will still have brewers select hops that they want to fill their contract for the next year. That just involves us overnight and samples to them. Popping out with Zoom call and, you know, hopefully smelling some of the hops on the other end with them and just discussing and walking them through it and making them feel really good about their decision. So a silver lining for my team this year, actually, is that we are delaying things a little bit up to probably mid-September. Usually as hops roll in, we are scrambling, trying to produce data, smell hops. It just we only smell 60 different lots a day. So if we're receiving a hundred, we just immediately fall behind and feel a little stressed out. But this year we have a little more time. So we're still going to do our best to get things done quickly and efficiently. But we can get all of that data loaded into the system as early as possible for that team that has to pick which core samples will be sent to the brewing customers.

John: Right. And Megan was saying that, from her, you know, perspective, there are some advantages as far as the brewers go, because now they have a chance for more people to be involved in the process on their end. Are there other kind of benefits? And we talk about timing, but from Europe, what do you see that might actually stick around like for next year? Do you think that they'll still be, sorry to say this, do you see yourself in a hurry to get back to the way things used to be, or are there some aspects of these changes that you would like to carry into the future?

Tiffany: That's a really good question. I think what this year is allowing us to do is actually, like I already said, take more time. But I think even our sales team is able to take more time with each one of their customers and walk them through the process. When you have so many breweries coming in all at once in Yakima, which is not a very big place, to be honest, when we're hosting all these folks and trying to get them to have the fullest and best experience that they can. But it can be a little challenging because we're just so bogged down. Back to back appointments. I think this is allowing us to spend more time. I love that Megan pointed out that more people can be involved. I mean, access to Yakima can be hard. It's not really small airports or hotels. We only have a few hotels. It can be a pretty expensive endeavor to get here and maybe sort of exclusive. And so what I love about this is actually getting I feel like sensory out to the masses to include more people in the brewery to assess. Okay, this is you know, we brew with Citra hops. These are the brands we're using it in. These are the sensory characteristics we think we had last year. Now we have three to choose from. Let's all assess these hop samples and decide which one is the best fit for us for the next year. And I just love that instead of having two people from a brewery that could now maybe be 10 or something like that. Then they can go out and do their job much better as well. They can talk even if they're just behind the bar serving beer. They can talk about how they specifically selected the Citra hops that we're going to go into that and why they chose that lot of hops. So I think it just, you know, snowball effect of education, I guess, in the brewing industry.

John: Yeah. Democratization, I guess. You know, democratization of sensory science, to an extent, is what's happening. Yeah. So something I'm also interested in is from year to year, how do you so it's important that it sounds like that your historical sensory data are pretty consistent over time. So there must be a fairly extensive training process to make sure that knowledge is preserved so that your ratings from this year correspond to the ratings, you know, from previous years. Could you talk a little about the training program that you have there in Yakima? How do you make sure that these numbers really do mean the same thing from year to year?

Tiffany: Sure. This is only my second full harvest with Yakima Chief. So but actually, my schedule has been so busy leading up to this because we've just been in this training mode getting everyone ready. And that's actually not restricted to just our sensory panelists. I actually spent all day yesterday working with our warehousing crews and our pellet line crews and training them on how to receive hops. And they're really the first checkpoint for that quality check. So as they're stabbing the bales, taking different measurements, you know, they're given all these tools. They have a moisture probe and a temperature gun, and they can make sure that it's a safe bale to receive. But they also have other tools. And so what I'm trying to do is empower them to use their eyes, their nose, their hands to actually assess the quality and in a different way. And you know telling them, you know, we haven't hired robots yet. Like, we want you people to use all of your senses to actually assess hop quality. So I had saved some samples from the year previous of, you know, some hops that were of lower quality and some more that of good quality and had them kind of go through and compare, okay, this is what powdery mildew actually looks like in a hop sample. And this is a high chatter sample. So, you know, it's not going to store really well. And then what I did was I had them smell ISO Lyrica acid, a vial. So they all got to smell the wonderful cheesy aroma that comes from oxidizing hops. And I told them this can get into beer. So we really want to catch things and not let those get into our system. So it's really fun to talk with that group. And harvest is really fast paced so it can be hard for them to take the time. But at least we know that the first people who see the lot can raise their hand if they see something wrong. And as far as our sensory panelists go, we are training all year round basically by you know, we don't just assess hops during harvest. We're also assessing hops that are coming off the production line as well. So, you know, we smelled Citra as a leaf hop and now we're going to smell Citra as a pellet sample. So they are smelling they're kept up. They smell reference standards all year long. Do repeated measures to make sure they're reading things the same way each time. And so I feel pretty confident going into harvest that they're, you know, well groomed, trained are ready to go. So there's no slow time in sensory analysis, I don't think.

John: Yeah, I can see that too. And that's something we were talking about before the show is the difference between kind of academic sensory and sensory and the real world where, you know, there's a lot of things where it'd be nice if you had more people or you had more time or had more resources to do. You know, full experimental design or whatever, but sometimes in real life, it just doesn't work out that way. So, okay, something I do want to talk about, this impressed me about your company is your emphasis. I really see you all is a company that's moving to being like data forward or data first that you’re embracing the tech revolution. So maybe it would be good to us, for our listeners to hear you talk about some of the ways that data collection is influencing Yakima Chief and the types like the full spectrum data you're collecting, how you're trying to match up different types of data with each other. Just your kind of general thoughts on this transition to becoming a data forward company.

Tiffany: Yeah, that’s really impressed me about Yakima Chief as well, and also that I was really just given access to a lot of data on day one when I joined. They're saying if this will make your job better, we'll let you see anything you want to see about a hop lot, which hasn't always been the case in my experience in the industry before. But Yakima chief, yeah, there are some standard measurements that you would be taking on any hop lot, you know, in the lab, data poundage, you know, the pounds that we're receiving. But now we're starting to track everything. It feels like.

John: Yeah, Internet of Things is coming.

Tiffany: We have a really phenomenal development team and our IT department and they actually built an internal app for us to use. And this is something that the people who are receiving those samples, you know, the first day that they come in the door, they're entered in. And all this information is, you know, lot of information, harvest date, kiln temperature, and spray records on our grower portal. So the growers are able to enter in data that will travel in with that about hop lot. And then once we receive it, then we'll start adding things like our quality grading measurements and then we'll add our sensory analysis. And that information goes to multiple places. So it's not just that it's going to the people who are picking out which lots will send to our brewing customers. All of that information is one hundred percent transparent to our growers as well, which is really important because they're the ones out there growing the hops. Starting it all. So they can use our sensory data and those grading parameters to inform decisions later on. They might see, you know, if there were high vegetal or green aromas, depending on the variety, that could mean that they harvested that that one way too early. And they want to wait a little bit longer next year to let those nice tropical aromas come through. If there's a really high chatter rating and we're saying that the cones just shattered immediately to the touch. I mean, they know that that's not high quality. And that can be an indicator of multiple things. It could be that the hops were harvested too late and they were drying too much on the vine before they were picked. I mean, they were over-kilned. So just, you know, cooked for too long basically and became really brittle or they were handled too roughly in the bailing process. So I think a grower can take the information and really inform how they're going to handle the hops the next year. They can also use our sensory data, I guess, to kind of I don't know, I consider a sort of interpreters between sometimes what brewers are saying about hops. And then we have our trained panel. That's, you know, the lexicon that we present to brewers is the one that we use. So they might not train on it, but we do. And we are trying to get everyone to speak the same language. And we do try to align closely with the DraughtLab lexicon or Hop flavor map that Lindsay talks about. But if a brewery describes a sample as Grandma's farmhouse, that can be a little bit confusing to a grower, I think, or even to me, I guess. What does that mean? But then they look over at our sensory panel data and they can see that there was high floral green grass, earthy, musty aromas. And maybe the brewer didn't pick that sample, but they described it as grandma's farmhouse. And they're like, I don't know why they didn't pick that sample. I liked my grandma's farmhouse. That smelled pretty good. But they can see that from our analysis. Oh, well, they were getting high, earthy and musty aromas, which we really wouldn't want out of that variety. So we understand that’s not a desirable trait. So I think it takes a little bit of work, but we're hoping that we can be this the standard that growers can use to interpret what brewing customers are saying about their hop varieties. And, you know, ultimately we want all the grower’s hops to be sold and we want to match them up with the brewer is going to do the best thing with each hop lot. So we're really trying to connect those two sets of data and have it make sense to both parties.

John: Yeah, and I think it's great. Well, first off, as far as sensory being a bridge, I mean, Danielle Van Hout was on AigoraCast and she said that a sensory is a bridge really between, you know, in a company it's the bridge between, say, product development and consumer research. But in your world, I mean, that's really what we're talking about, is you've got this kind of product that's been developed by growers, it's been grown, and then you have the consumers in some sense are the growers and you are also the bridge. But I think it's fascinating this this kind of end to end data collection. So the growers are able to put in all the details? They have their details about the growing process and then you've got details about how the hops are processed, like how they were kiln or whatever else might have happened to them. And then you've got, I guess, analytic information and then sensory information. So it's very comprehensive view. Yeah, that's great. I assume that you all are moving in the machine learning direction with some of that. Is that on the table for you? What would you say?

Tiffany: I think so, yes. This year we will be trialing a computer vision program to help us with our greenness and shatter ratings. You know, even though I would consider the people who are grading to be experts when they're looking at the Hops, I know there's so much human bias and, you know, for instance, if I'm really hungry, I missed my lunch and I'm just in a bad mood or it's the 33rd day of harvest, i might not be so objective when I’m looking at that hops sample. So I really want to have something that I can go to as a hard number and using, you know, training a model to actually analyze in a quicker way and more accurate way, I think is going to be of greater benefit to our growers and then our team as well. Just alleviating some of that stress.

John: Definitely. Okay, well, this has been great. Well, we are amazingly out of time here, Tiffany. You've been a great guest. I really appreciate all your insights. Well, first off, if someone wanted to reach out to contact you, what would be a good way for them to get in touch with you?

Tiffany: Probably the easiest way would be LinkedIn. I try to check it frequently so they can connect with me there.

John: Okay, so we'll put that in the show notes and then do you have any final words of wisdom or advice for someone who's just starting out in sensory? You and I were talking before the show about neither of us have really traditional sensory background, but here we are. So what would be advice for someone who shows up? You know, they just join a sensory department, what advice would you have for them for, you know, how to get off on the right foot in their career?

Tiffany: Yeah, I mean, aside from, you know, joining organizations and networking and talking to other professionals, I really think that and maybe this is for anyone just joining a company, but somewhere that I've seen success is really asking for a seat at the table in other departments and listening to, you know, I can learn so much from sitting in with the lab team and hearing, oh, this is how we can make their sampling process a little bit easier, or talking to the sales team or just sitting in on one of their meetings and figuring out, I think this is actually the data that they want. And we've actually been collecting something a little bit different this whole time. But that collaboration has been really, you know, it's inspired new projects. It's helped us be more efficient. A great example would be I had to work a lot with our IT team as they developed our internal data collection app. And it was actually just super helpful to have two of the main developers participate in sensory panel. So they went through the full training process. They understood they had to use the app and in real time and understand and they learned about biases as well. And so when I asked them not to include something on the ballot, they really understood why. So it's been I just think, put yourself out there. And I'm not a very assertive person, but if I just ask to sit there and listen and just ask a few questions, I'm not there to direct anything. I just want to learn how sensory can benefit multiple areas of the company.

John: Right. I think that's a great advice. I mean, sensory is truly multidisciplinary. That's one of things I love about it and that means we can and should interact with all different branches within our companies or organizations, wherever we might be. So, well, this has been great, Tiffany. Thanks again for being on the show. Anything else you want to say before we wrap up?

Tiffany: No, I think I'm good. Thanks so much, John.

John: Okay, it's been great. Thanks a lot. Okay, that's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes. Thanks.


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