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One quick note from the Colorado Rare Beer Tasting last night at the Rackhouse Pub in Denver.
I had two beers made with unkilned Colorado Cascade hops — Hoperation Ivy from Ska Brewing and Colorado Wet Hop from Great Divide Brewing (the one in the glass at the top). Both excellent, with bright “punch you in the nose” citrusy Cascade aroma and flavor.
As in many states, Colorado farmers are giving hops a go. We’ll see if they can manage it economically and agronomically, but these beers are proof they can grow hops that are, for want of a better word, “good.”
About this “Craft Beer Bubble” thing, I just don’t know.
Host Derek Harrison has made the topic for The Session #80 intentionally ambigious: Is Craft Beer a Bubble?
Do we have to be able to define “craft beer” to move on? If so, we’re screwed. How about bubble? Economists don’t agree, but allowing for some vagueness in the terms used in forming the definition a bubble occurs when the perceived value of an asset exceeds its logical underlying value.
Not surprisingly, bubbles are much more easily spotted in retrospect, like the Tulip Bubble (or Tulipmania), the Mississippi Bubble, the South Sea Bubble, the Housing Bubble, or the Dotcom Bubble. The thing is none of these revolved around consumer goods, which is what beer is.
Granted the idea there is a premium pricing bubble has been getting some play recently, and that it could burst. That’s different than what happened in Holland (Tulipmania) or Silicon Valley, but it should worry breweries who need to get a higher price for beer than, say, what consumers pay for Budweiser. “Need to” not because they are greedy but because making beer less efficiently is cooked into their business plan.
Think of it another way. Shouldn’t anybody starting a brewery in America consider the fact that there’s basically no overall growth. Do we really need more brewing kettles, fermentation tanks and bottling lines?
That sobering thought aside, there’s good reason to believe that in the next several years breweries will make more beer that sells for more because it has more flavor (or at least different flavors; allowing for pumpkin beers and orange shandies). How many of those breweries — so a bubble? — there will be is tougher to say. Now we’re talking business plans and personal aspirations.
So we come back to the fact this is in large part a business story, and a different story in the England than North America, different in Germany than in Italy, different in New Zealand than South Africa, different in [pick a country] and [pick a country]. Yesterday Alan McLeod pointed to a story about three buddies opening a Belgian beer cafe in Hyderabad. It appeared in the food section of The Hindu, discussed history, culture and of course aspirations, but ultimately it is about a business, one that will succeed or not.
The story extends beyond brewers (the people with aspirations) and breweries (the businesses). There are liquor store owners, cicerones, bar owners, people selling equipment to bar owners …. a long of list that wouldn’t be complete without the people who grow our beer. Relatively small barley growing (and malting) and hop growing operations have sprung up in all sorts of places with the idea they’ll provide local ingredients for smaller, regional brewers. They have no chance of succeeding unless small brewers do as well. They can’t compete on price.
Farmers in the traditional beer growing regions have a similar rooting interest. One hundred years ago breweries used 12.6 grams of alpha to produces a hectoliter of beer, and today they need 4.1 grams. In contrast, breweries the Brewers Association classifies as “craft” use 5 to 20 times more hops per barrel than the world’s best selling beers.
Hop farmers would sure like to know how much hops those breweries are going to want five years from now and what varieties. They’ve got serious investment decisions to make. When I was in the Northwest last month I don’t think I had a conversation with a hop grower that didn’t include some variation on the question of “Will craft keeping growing?” or “How much more can it grow?”
They are usually third, fourth, even fifth generation farmers. These are good times for those who a few years ago committed themselves to serving smaller breweries, but if they haven’t experienced harder times they’ve heard about them.
“The mid-’80s was a difficult time for hop farmers,” said Eric Desmarais, himself fourth generation. “My mom and dad did everything they could to discourage me, but since I was 13 I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
He has the land to plant additional acres of the varieties small brewers particularly want, but he’d need to invest about $750,000 in his kilning facility to be able to process them properly.
“When will it end? How will it end?” he asked, referring specifically to the demand for hops but therefore generally about the beers that include them in above average quantities. “There’s a trail of tears after every one (hop boom).”
In doing a little background research for The Session #80 I came across a 1980 article in the Master Brewers Association of the Americas Technical Quarterly titled “Beers for the Future.” Alas, it is mostly an examination of the how and why of producing low-alcohol beers. So no nifty predictions about beers made with pumpkins or aged in wine barrels.
However, one table provides a bit of data on the direction American beer was still headed in 1980, the year Sierra Nevada Brewing began selling beer. It compares beers from 10 large brewers in 1957 with 1979 beers in various categories.
Jump forward to 2009. The Barth-Haas Group began analyzing the bitterness levels in brands from around the world in 2006. They measured iso-alpha acids (milligrams per liter), which broadly correspond to International Bitterness Units (IBU). So, with a bit of fudging, 1 mg/L=1 IBU. The 2009 results, published in Brauwelt International in 2011, found that 11 U.S. lagers averaged 7.6 milligrams per liter. The article drew attention to earlier reports that bitterness units were still around 20 in 1980 (see above) and 12 by the late 1990s.
U.S. lagers, South American lagers, and Chinese beers contained the lowest levels of iso-alpha acids (7 to 9 mg/L).
You are looking at more than 25 tons of hops on the cooling floor at Loftus Ranches in Washington’s Yakima Valley last Friday. This is what they mean when they say “green gold.”
I was in the Northwest last week first of all to speak at Hop Union’s Hop & Brew School (“Hop Aroma & Flavor: BC [Before Cascade] and AD [After Dank]). Since Hop Union paid my way to get there I added a few days to visit hop farmers in both Washington and Oregon and get an update on the brewery at Mount Angel Abbey. A five-barrel brewhouse is due to arrive before the end of the year, which might be before the brewing space it ready. The monks should be pleased if they have beer to sell when Mount Angel hosts is massive Oktoberfest next September.
But back to hops, and a few links.
- Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn used Mosaic (readers’ choice) for a “wet hop” beer called Autumnation, and a wrote a bit for their blog. I’ll let you know what I think of the beer after I taste it.
- It seems there are stories about “wet hopped beers” at every turn these days. I like this one from Long Island, even thought it is not at all clear we can call “small-scale hop farming economically viable.”
- Shepherd Neame will host the first UK Hop Symposium on Oct. 3. Tony Redsell, Peter Darby and a day in and around Faversham, Kent — wish it weren’t 4,000 miles away. In addition, Eddie Gadd of the Ramsgate Brewery will talk about the Kent Green Hop Beer Fortnight.
- Roger Protz profiles Ali Capper, who is determined to keep British hops relevant to brewers in the UK and elsewhere (particularly the US).
- You may have already read about it, but Sierra Nevada’s first Single Fresh, Wet & Wild Harvest Festival (sorry, you’ll have to fill in your birth date) next month will bring even more attention to the to unkilned hops.
- Although breweries from all over the country are shipping beer to the Sierra Nevada party if Scotty were to beam me to one festival it would be the Hood River Hops Festival. Beers from breweries almost all right the middle of Hop Country next Saturday (Sept. 28). For an idea of what might be served, Jeff Alworth is keeping a running list of what’s being served in Beervana.
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