Hard times have befallen the global beer market, and brewers close to home are feeling the heat. The issue: A tremendous shortage of hops, one of the primary flavoring components of beer. While demand for this bitter blossom has climbed dramatically in recent years, the supply has crashed and prices have climbed exorbitantly as a result-up to 600 percent or more-and on brewpub chalkboard draft lists, beer prices are climbing.
Worse, other beers have been wiped from the list. At some breweries, IPAs and Double IPAs-hop-heavy brews renowned for their mouth-searing bitterness-have become too expensive to remain in production. Ballast Point Brewing Company in San Diego and Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma have ceased production of popular super-hopped beers. At our own Hollister Brewing Company, brewer and owner Eric Rose has felt the market’s turbulence. Prices for some of his favorite hop varieties have climbed from $5 per pound last year to $23 this year, but Rose has vowed not to compromise his beers.
“I’m not letting this affect us,” he said. “I’d rather charge a price that reflects reality than compromise my Double IPA, pale ales, or IPA. We’re still interested in producing hoppy beers, and I’m just going to say that if you want them, you’ll have to pay for them.”
But it’s not a travesty, at least; a formerly $4 beer may now run $4.50, he said.
Yet some beers will have to change. Brewer Tim McCarthy of Santa Barbara Brewing Company believes he will have to scrounge next year if he wants to make his Crybaby IPA again. The beer’s recipe includes a kaleidoscope of seven secret hop varieties, and some of them have become tough to find. Santa Barbara Homebrew Supply is an online purveyor of equipment and ingredients for homebrewers, and owner Rich Lloyd has doubled his hop prices because his suppliers have done the same. He has also limited customers to a scant five ounces of hops per week, enough for five gallons of bitter beer. “I’ve had to beg and plead to get what I need because I’m a little guy,” said Lloyd. “If you’re a homebrewer or you’re trying to start a brewery now, it’s a really tough time.”
Now for a pinch of good news: Farmers are responding to the sudden demand by replanting their land with hops. That brings up some bad news: The new vines will not produce significant crops for at least two or three years.
And more bad news: While farmers are now replanting hops, many are opting for varieties high in bitter alpha acids. These supply beer with the basic bitterness that characterizes the beverage, but what many craft brewers want are so-called aromatic hops, varieties that give beer the charisma and subtle flavor nuances that “super-alpha hop” varieties cannot offer. In fact, some hop varieties that got ripped out of the ground en masse during the height of the panic five to 10 years ago are rare or nearly gone today, like Magnum, Simcoe, and Eroica.
For farmers, the money is in the high-alpha hops. In fact, these blossoms are often reduced to a highly concentrated extract, sold in bulk as a fast fix for bittering beer. According to Marc Worona, national sales director with Brewers Supply Group West, a major hop supplier, the world’s stockpile of alpha acid extract is short by about 1,000 metric tons-equivalent to approximately 60 billion 12-ounce pours of beer.
The cutback in hop acreage has been dramatic. Growers around the world farmed 236,067 acres of hops in 1992, but today the globe bears just 113,417 acres of hop-land. The crash came after a giant surplus in the late 1990s that caused a huge price drop. Hop growers could not pay the bills in spite of fast sales, and while beer makers enjoyed easy, cheap pickings on an overproduced product for several years, the rug was suddenly yanked from under their feet when many growers moved into other agricultural fields. The demand for corn- and soy-based ethanol has exceeded that for hops, a fire at a major hop storage warehouse in Yakima in late 2006 didn’t help anything, and today beer makers everywhere are skirmishing to rustle up enough hops to keep their kettles roiling.
Despite the current difficulties, many in the beer business believe that demand will eventually prevail and that hops of many kinds will return to abundance. But for Pat Slavin, assistant brewer at Telegraph Brewing Company, it doesn’t matter so much, anyway. He calls his brews “yeast-driven,” and although he has seen hop prices increase from $5 per pound to more than $35 in just one year, Slavin focuses less on hops than on particular strains of Belgian yeast that provide zesty citrus esters in his mild porter, stout, and wheat beer. Not a hophead’s dream, perhaps, but it’s comforting to know that even during hard times, good craft beer remains on the chalkboard.