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03.12.08

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Photograph by Traci Hukill
Green Gold: Amelia Slayton, general manager at Seven Bridges Cooperative on River Street, shows off aromatic--and increasingly in-demand--Fuggle hops grown organically in Belgium.

Trouble Brewing

A massive hops shortage and barley slow-down have the microbrew industry on the boil.

By Richard Wilson


Stock up on American microbrews now, for a current availability crisis affecting two of beer's main ingredients could force many popular beers and even entire microbreweries off the market within the next year. There are those who believe that the shortage of hops and barley will actually be a boon to beer; without them at the ready, brewers may follow creative new whimsies in fermenting. Perhaps there will be herbs like heather tips, yarrow and chamomile to flavor beers, and rice, wheat and honey to create the alcohol. But one thing seems almost certain: The production volume of those big bitter beers and high-alcohol whoppers that hopheads love so dearly will almost certainly decline.

Hop acreage around the globe crashed from 236,067 acres in 1992 to 113,417 acres in 2006, according to 2007 data from Hopunion LLC, a hop-distribution company based in Yakima, Wash. (Compare that number to the more than 800,000 acres of grapevines that grow in California alone.) In the same time period, U.S. hop plantings diminished from 42,266 to 29,435 acres.

But the most startling decline has occurred in the United Kingdom, where 56,000 acres of hops covered the land in 1856. A steady vaporization of the hops industry gave way to 7,700 acres of hops in 1996; today, just 2,400 acres remain. Meanwhile, from 2005 to 2006, North American barley production dropped from 15.3 million to 13.8 million metric tons as foreign markets experienced declines as well, making things that much harder for microbrewers already struggling. All the while, the national and international demand for these products has increased as drinkers have come to realize that craft beer is the shit.

At Santa Cruz's Seven Bridges Cooperative, which supplies organic hops to home brewers and select organic microbreweries (including Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing), demand for hops has spiked out of all reasonable proportion. General manager Amelia Slayton says that about six months ago the co-op started receiving orders for suspiciously large amounts of hops--on the order of 20 pounds at a time (home brewers generally buy hops in 2-ounce increments). She speculates that desperate microbreweries are behind the large orders.

Since the co-op's bread and butter is its organic home brew kits, it wouldn't do to run out of organic hops. So it implemented a rule: rather than just jack up prices, the coop now sells its precious organic hops only to microbreweries and home brewers who've been loyal customers since before last fall, when the crisis began in earnest.

There's something else, too.

"Our bestselling book right now is Grow Your Own Hops," Slayton says. "We can't keep it on the shelf."

All Hopped Up
So how did this shortage happen? With hops, a small portion of the current problem stems back to October 2006, when a large warehouse fire in Yakima destroyed about 2 million pounds of dried hops. But the warehouse only contained 4 percent of the American hop load. The primary cause of the hopvine pullout that began so brutally in the late 1990s was a price crash generated by a devastating surplus of hops.

"There was a large stockpile of hop extract in warehouses around the world," says Marc Worona, national sales director with the Santa Rosa's arm of Brewers Supply Group West, one of the four leading suppliers of hops in America. "We all had an artificial sense of security, but a couple of years ago, this stockpile ran out. At that point, acres were down and the growers were gone."

Prices for some highly desirable varietals of hops have surged upward by as much as 600 percent, and many farmers in Yakima and Willamette valleys, the heart and soul of the American industry, are now replanting their lands with hops to cash in once more on the demand. Worona expects to see a healthy crop load in September 2009--but the varietals being replanted are bitter alpha hops. These acidic varieties, such as Columbus hops, are often reduced into a simple hop extract oil for quick addition to brewing tanks, and although they're necessary for many beer operations, they're not the specialty aromatic sorts that microbrewers so eagerly seek.

"A lot of aromatic hops get low yields, and farmers are replacing them with the high-alpha hops for making extract," Worona explains. "There's a very strong alpha market right now. What it comes down to is how much we're willing to pay for hops, and consumers for beer. If we're not willing to pay for these hops, we're going to lose them. We need to put our heads together and decide if it's time we pay these farmers a fair price."

Hayward's Feb. 9 Double IPA Festival offered a telling snapshot of how the global hops shortage is affecting the beer business in our own back yard.

"Last year, we had over 50 beers pouring," said Vic Kralj, owner of the Bistro, which hosts the annual event. "This year, only 36 brewers showed. Guys just aren't willing to throw all their hops into one recipe. Right now, there aren't many hops to get for some guys, and come June or July, there will be some breweries without any hops at all."

Lagunitas' Hop Stoopid, a super-Imperial IPA of 90 IBUs (international bitterness units) was entered at the festival, though brewery publicist and self-described "beer doctor" Pat Mace says it will go on hiatus next season.

"We can't afford to make any more right now. If we did, we'd run out of hops for our IPA, our flagship beer."

Double, or Imperial, IPAs often require two times or more the hops of milder beers, and as a general rule, craft brewers, who pride themselves on the intensified flavors of their brews, use more hops per unit of beer than the large companies. These little operations also utilize a wider range of hop varieties, and they will feel the shortage most poignantly, particularly those companies that never secured contracts, standard protocol among the macrobreweries.

Good Ol' Sam
Samuel Adams, the largest "craft brewery" in the nation, is in the midst of a good-Samaritan effort to help microbrewers out of this emergency. The brewery has announced that it will soon be selling 20,000 pounds of two varieties of hops to small U.S. beer makers in need, asking for no more money above what the big brewery initially paid to suppliers. But these 10 tons amount to a drop in the bucket compared to what the industry needs. Healdsburg's Bear Republic Brewing Company, for example, uses 40,000 pounds of six varieties of hops per year, while Petaluma's Lagunitas used 120,000 pounds of hops in 2007.

Brotherly (and sisterly) solidarity among organic hops farmers has also helped to soften the blow for organic brewmasters such as Emily Thomas of Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing. Organic hops farmers in Germany banded together after becoming aware of the shortage and were able to pool resources so their customers wouldn't be hit with a sudden price hike. Luckily for Santa Cruz beer lovers, Thomas had pre-existing contracts with these and other organic hops farmers, so the pints at the Mountain Brewing's popular tasting room will only cost a quarter more than last year.

"We're fortunate because we have contracts in place, otherwise we'd probably be out of business," says Thomas. "Every day I see other breweries on Internet forums who say they need hops or they'll be going out of business."

As Thomas begins planning what beer varieties she'll cook up next year, the hops shortage is never far from her mind. After taking a minute to explain that hops-intensive beers such as Imperial IPAs are "just a phase," she admits the shortage will be affecting their plans for next year.

"People will get bored of overhopped beers and look for more of a balance with malt," she predicts, before adding that the hops shortage will force her to "focus in the future on more malty beers, such as the German-style Dunkel Weiss and the English style ESB. We won't ever be able to do Imperial IPAs or Imperial Reds because of the shortage."

Getting Creative
But some in the brewing business foresee interesting experiments among crafty brewers as they seek to bitter their beers in potential absence of hop flowers.

"When people face economic hardships, creativity really kicks into gear," says Tom Bleigh, head brewer at Pyramid Breweries. "These kinds of pressures are always good to an extent. They force us to re-evaluate what we're doing and to explore parameters of beer that we otherwise would not have thought of. It's a healthy pressure that helps us redefine what beer is."

But some rare varieties of aromatic hops, like Amarillo and Simcoe, are actually at risk of disappearing as farmers adopt more profitable types, which carry both more alpha acids and also produce a greater tonnage of flowers per acre. And some oddities have already gone commercially extinct.

"The Eroica hop disappeared a few years ago," says Lagunitas' Mace. "It wasn't very popular in general. So farmers ripped it all out. We made a beer called Eroica as a goodbye salute to the hop, and it's totally gone now."

As hops blow away with the wind, there remains the barley shortage, which has boosted prices of malt by approximately 50 percent, according to Worona. Blame floods in from all directions--bad weather everywhere, harvest idiosyncrasies, rising demand for craft beer in developing nations--but the most commonly cited cause is the biodiesel movement. Many farmers who once raised barley have shifted to corn for the making of ethanol.

"We're now in the position where we need to decide: Do we want to drink beer or drive biofuel cars?" Worona says.

But how dire are these shortages, if they linger longer than predicted? Is beer without hops beer without hope? Is beer without barley barely beer? (Sorry.) But yes, some beers are brewed in the partial or complete absence of these ingredients. Lagunitas' Brown Shugga attains approximately 25 percent of its 9.9 percent ABV from cane sugar. Brewery Silenrieux in Belgium produces a spelt-based beer called Joseph. Crafted of 30 percent wheat malt, this refreshing and zesty brew carries a notable aroma of perfume and a breadlike body. Pyramid's Hefeweizen consists of 60 percent wheat malt. Sorghum beers are available for those who avoid gluten, but they are criticized as flavorless and without body or character. MateVeza, a highly rated organic pale ale from Butte Creek Brewing, is bittered in part by the South American yerba maté.

If none of these ideas makes your mouth water, take solace in the opinion of David Teckam, certified beer judge and member of the American Brewers Guild in Woodland. He believes that regardless of how brewers and farmers temporarily mitigate the problems at hand, beer as we know and love it is here to stay.

"There are three items that are recession-proof," he said. "Flowers, candy and beer. That's something I read somewhere. I'm not certain about the flowers or candy, but beer's been around for 10,000 years. It's not going anywhere."

Steve Hahn and Traci Hukill contributed to this report.


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