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Hops 2015: No bumper crop this year

Hop pickers, hop harvest

The good news is that this headline is pretty stupid: “IPA Lovers Beware: Beer Prices Could Skyrocket Next Year Thanks to Drought.”

The not so good news is that this one is more accurate: “Trouble Brewing: Drought-Hit Hops Crop Concerns Craft Beer Brewers.” And the story that goes with it is well reported and more complete.

That hop prices must go up if growing breweries are going to continue to use the varieties of hops they are in the manner they are is not news (see this explanation from last January). However, lack of water in the state of Washington, an unsually hot late spring/early summer in the American northwest, and a not-so-great growing season in Europe are about to remind us that beer is an agricultural product.

Earlier this week, Otmar Weingarten of the German Hop Growers Association told the those attending International Hop Growers Congress in Bavaria that production in Germany’s main hop growing regions would likely fall 12 to 22 percent short of earlier predictions. And Ann George, executive director of the Hop Growers of America, said that US alpha varieties yield would be down up to 5 percent and aroma varieties off 10 to 15 percent. There’s bound to be variation from region to region and variety to variety. For instance, best guess is that Centennial yields, also disappointing in 2014, could be 20 percent short of expectations.

That is bad news for brewers without contracts who were hoping for a bumper crop (so they could buy the excess). And it means you’ll see more stories about hop shortages as harvest begins next month and rolls into fall. But this is not the hop shortage of 2007 and 2008, one that was a big enough deal to merit an entry in “The Oxford Companion to Beer.” Then a combination of events led to an alpha shortage that became obvious after the 2006 harvest. In 2005, the “spot” price, one that brewers without contracts for some or all of the hops they needed would pay, was $1.95 to $2.80 per kg alpha. A pound of Cascade cost $1.65 to $1.75. By the end of the 2007 harvest the shortage was so extreme that most un-contracted hops sold for $198 to $220 per kg alpha and some ticked as high as $992. The price of a pound of Cascade climbed to $30.

Right now there remains an alpha surplus. I should probably write a primer about what this means, but just the basics for now. Most of the world’s largest breweries use hop extract to brew their beers and treat alpha as a commodity. They don’t use a lot for any individual beer, but they use a lot of hops. They like paying low prices, but as we saw in 2007 when they need to they have the money to spend whatever they must. So if alpha gets out of balance, and particularly given the structural change that has taken place, then all bets are off.

The future of hops – a graphic prediction

The Barth Report, hops 2015

There went my Friday morning. No time to read hundreds thousands of tweets hypothesizing about the implications of the Duvel Moortgat/Firestone Walker deal. The Barth Report for 2014-2015 is available to download, and to print, because the best way to make sense of all the information included about hops it is to underline the key passages using different color pens.

Some of the news isn’t as newsy in the past. These days, the US June acreage report gets quickly publicized and dissected and the Barth-Haas Group, the world’s largest hop broker, issues a similar world update even before its annual report is out. But this is the one published since the nineteenth century, with reports going back to 1909 available online. Each year it collects statistics about the businesses of brewing and hops everywhere, and over time that provides important context.

Meanwhile, the cover (pictured above) says something about right now. “A Firework of Hop Varieties” occupies the space at the end of the report reserved to look at current issues (for instance, organic hop farming in the 2010-2011 report). Depending how deeply you have already descended into the hops rabbit hole this could look very 2012 to you, but for many in the beer world it is still uncharted territory:

“From a state of insignificance in regard to taste and appreciated mostly for their bitterness, hops have worked their way to the gustatory core of most craft beer recipes. Today, brewers exchange opinions on the sensory impressions of a wide range of hop varieties in a depth and with emotions which until recently only wine connoisseurs were known. Demand for new hop varieties is showing no sign of abating and is inspiring hop breeders all over the world. Regardless of the time-consuming process of traditional hop breeding (8 – 10 years until a new variety is ready for the market), in the past five years, many new hop varieties have been brought to market at shorter intervals. A common feature of virtually all the new varieties is that they are able to offer particularly sought-after fruity notes.”

Hopstate NY: 2015, not 1879

Imagine Iowa without corn, or Illinois without soybeans.

That’s what it would have been like in the 1870s to think of New York without hops. By 1879 New York grew 80 percent of American hops. Four years later, The Western Brewer provided an industry overview: “It will be seen that in 1850 hops were raised in 33 States and Territories; in 1860, in 37; in 1870 in 36; in 1880 but 18. … It remains to be seen whether California, Oregon, and Washington Territory will increase their production; or, in a few years, drop off as so many others have done. It is probable that New York will always remain the banner hop state.”

Instead, within 10 years the Pacific Coast produced more hops than New York, and by the time Prohibition began New York farmers grew less than 4 percent of the national crop. This happened for multiple reasons: lower yields in New York than on he West Coast, hop disease issues, higher labor costs, and small inefficient operations.

Hop Growers of America estimates New York farmers strung 250 acres of hops in 2015, two-thirds more than in 2014. That’s considerably less than the 39,072 acres in 1879, when 10,000 New York farmers harvested 21.6 million pounds, but the pace of expansion has picked up. The first commercial field to operate since 1954 was planted in 1999, but 11 years later farmers harvested only 15 acres.

“We have a real mix of people,” said Steve Miller, hired by the Cornell Cooperative Extension in 2011 as the state’s first hop specialist. “There are only a couple of growers who’ve had hops in for more than 10 years in the state. The vast majority of growers have only had them in for a year or two.”

Last year, Miller estimated there are now about 75 farmers there with two to five acres of hops, and most have the potential to expand. Yields on farms with mature plants have topped 1,500 pounds per acre. In 1879 the average was 554. “It’s based on people becoming growers, not hobbyists,” Miller said. “People who have knowledge and equipment and barns.”

The state of New York supports this revival in a variety of ways, including funding Miller’s research. So has Brewery Ommegang outside of Cooperstown. From the time Ommegang opened in 1996 its press releases mentioned it is located in the former center of U.S. hop growing. This always seemed a bit curious, because at the time nobody in New York was growing hops and you wouldn’t describe any of Ommegang’s beers as hop focused. Although the brewery recently released its first IPA and brews a range of hop forward pale ales, hops still aren’t what you think of first when somebody says Ommegang.

Ommegang posted the photo above last month, showing the small hop yard at the brewery. It is growing test varieties for the Cornell Extension program and will trial them in beers. The brewery also bought one and a half tons of New York hops last year. A good portion of those went into Hopstate NY, a pale ale released only in New York state a couple of weeks ago. It is brewed with Cascade, Nugget and Chinook hops, so it is brimming with citrus aroma and flavor, its resin character lingering beyond the finish.

No melon or blueberry or other exotic New New World aromas or flavors, but something different than New York hops offered in 1879.

A bit of disclosure: We don’t live in New York. I was able to taste the beer because the brewery sent me some. I certainly would buy it if I lived in New York. I won’t claim that at first sip, or third for fourth, that I thought, “Oh, this tastes of New York” (or the rolling hills around Coopertown, of which I am quite fond). But I could see it becoming a familar taste. One of place.

Last month when I was in California I had a lengthy — rambling, you might say — conversation with Brian Hunt at Monnlight Brewing about what makes a beer relevant. I’m going to be a while sorting that out, but I’m pretty sure than Hopstate NY is an example of relevant.

Hops 2015 update: The bigger picture

If you haven’t memorized the details within the June Hop Acreage Report you might want to read that first, but now we have the world Hop Market and Crop Development Report from the Barth-Haas Group, the world’s largest hop broker.

So here’s what’s new since last week:

– “Worldwide hop acreage surpasses 50.000 ha (123,500 acres) for the first time since 2010; continued shift towards aroma/flavour in the US and more varietal changes in Germany. Favourable growing conditions in Europe to date; some concern about unusually high temperatures in the Yakima Valley in early June coupled with rolling water rationing in some locations.”

In fact, mandatory water rationing in the Wapato Irrigation District means a good chunk of hops receive water for 10 days, then don’t for 5. A friend sent me this photo of plants after three days without water at 90 degrees (Fahrenheit). Write your own caption. I like, “Beer is an agricultural product.”

Yakima Valley hops, 3 days without water

More from the report: “Overall, at this stage, the crop appears to be average. The unusually hot days and warm nights have moved the plants well ahead of a normal schedule. Some growers have been struggling to maintain sufficient labor force to complete certain tasks on time and there are some concerns about water availability in junior water districts, which have curtailed deliveries at a time when temperatures have spiked. The excessive heat has increased spider mite populations. Control measures are being applied. Some powdery mildew is showing at this time. Fungicide applications are being applied for control.”

– As promised, German growers have planted more of the three new varieties with “New World” aroma character that so many brewers (and presumably drinkers) want. Mandarina Bavaria acreage is up 109%, Hallertau Blanc 127%, Huell Melon 82%. Of course, it will be 2017 before rhizomes planted this year produce a full crop.

This news is a drag: “The structural change among German hop growers continues: 21 operations ceased after the 2014 harvest leaving 1.171 active hop farms for 2015. The average farm size has increased to 15,2 ha (up from 8,5 ha in 2000).”

– “The Czech Republic reports a modest increase of 3.5% to a total of 4.617 ha. Slovenia increases by 110 ha, mainly in the Celeia variety, to reach 1.406 ha. Poland also expands acreage by some 100 ha to 1.510 ha. China reduces hop acreage by 255 ha and drops to 2.400 ha.”

– The market outlook: “2015 is fully contracted out in both the fine aroma and flavour categories. The availability of spot quantities will depend on the outcome of the crop. The market is considerably softer in standard aroma varieties (mainly Perle and Hallertau Tradition) as well as high alpha hops where supply and demand are more or less in balance.”

And: “The 2015 spot market is set to be a challenging one again for the industry.”

In which case you could be reading a lot soon about soaring hop prices. Those won’t affect brewers who have contracts, so short term are not an excuse for big time increases in hop prices. Long term, some sorting out to do.

Tired of hops? Consider featherbowling

MONDAY BEER LINKS, MUSING 06.22.15

Believe in featherbowling.
My favorite read of the week, maybe month. I’ll admit the beer connection is minimal, but the Cadiuex Cafe was an early outpost for flavorful beer in Detroit. Delightful on the cafe side, fascinating on the bowling side. [Via ESPN the Magazine]

Doom Bar and the Question of Origin.
The quick summary: the popular UK beer Doom Bar is brewed outside of Cornwall as well as in Cornwall, which is not what the brand’s owner Molson-Coors would have drinkers believe. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, Boak & Bailey write, what does that mean? Among other things they “suspect it will take months for most people to clock this news and, even then, many won’t care — it’s a popular beer which presumably sells to the trade at a competitive price and it’s still Cornish-ish, right?” I wish they weren’t right, but I figure they are. [Via Boak & Baley’s Beer Blog]

June Hop Acreage Report.
If You Drink It, They Will Grow: A Changing Landscape for Hops.
More on Hops: Prices and Future Growth.
Peak hop: Obsession with flavour may be dulling our beer palates.
Hops are giving you man boobs? Poppycock.
As I noted last week on Twitter, a few years ago hardly anybody beyond hop farmers paid attention to the USDA June Hop Report. That’s changed. Bart Watson of the Brewers Association analyzes it in depth (first link), the Bryan Roth goes deeper (next two). The fourth link isn’t about production, but beyond reminding us of the new interest in hops dredges up the notion that an obsession with hops keeps drinkers from exploring other flavors in beer. I disagree. The last link is to something I posted Friday, about the silly statement that hops give men man boobs. You’d be dead from alcoholism long before you could consume enough 8-prenylnaringenin to result in estrogenic effects.

Should I be drinking local or sustainable beer?
“Which is greener: beer brewed on wind energy that is trucked 1,000 miles to the consumer, or beer brewed on coal energy with minimal transport needed?” [Via Grist]

New Chinese Beer Saves Rhinos By Using Fake Rhino Horn.
Ingredient of the Week No. 1. [Via Eater]

Carrot craft beer is being brewed in Australia.
Ingredient of the Week No. 2. The beer is called Wabbit Season. [Via Mashable]

How Solid Are The Breweries In Your State?
“The question was which states have the breweries that have the most above-average beers, and which states have the breweries that make the most superlative beers.” Hop science I get, this I don’t. [Via BeerGraphs]

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