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Hops: Ugh, the saga continues

HopsPart of it is pure chance because several beer periodicals just hit the streets, but this seems to have been particularly dreary week for hops news.

The newest issue of All About Beer magazine devotes a chunk of its news section to the hops shortage. Every regional edition of the Brewing News family of “brewspapers” has a story about hops, with the word crisis appearing way too much. Some of it is just print lagging behind what we already knew.

But I also heard a couple of nasty rumors this week that need investigating. It’s starting to look like a visit to the Yakima Valley in May and to the hops fields in Bavaria and Slovenia later this year will be fact-finding missions.

Alpha apparently trumps aroma these days, so it’s not just the future of IPAs we’re discussing.

At mid-week Bill Brand delivered a double whammy with a story for the Bay Area newspapers about beer prices going up, with more details from brewers in his blog.

Many of the horror stories you’ve read are about smaller breweries that didn’t, a perhaps still don’t, have contracts. They were left to buy what they needed on the spot market, which has been just plain ugly. But Brand talks to brewers who have contracts for this year, and they aren’t feeling too comfortable.

They shouldn’t. Consider, for instance, the recent story that India’s beer market will soon rival China. Those guys are going to need a lot of hops.

China already does. China produced 1.2 million hectoliters of beer in 1970, 251 million in 2003. That’s right, from one to two-hundred and fifty-one. In contrast, between 1992 and 2006 world hop acreage dropped from 236,000 to 113,000. Granted, farmers have become more efficient but that’s a lot of acres.

(It’s really an aside, but such a stunning number it merits passing along: UK hop farmers worked 53,500 acres in 1850, but tend to 2,400 today.)

Yes, China and India also will need a LOT more barley malt, and higher prices for malt are a major reason you are seeing $1 a six-pack prices increases as the pump. But — so far, at least — nobody is talking about the same sort of fundamental shift in what varieties of malt are available as they are when discussing hops.

Does anybody know where I can buy a “Save the aroma hops” T-shirt?

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28 Responses to Hops: Ugh, the saga continues

  1. SteveH February 8, 2008 at 6:35 am #

    “Alpha apparently trumps aroma these days…”

    I think we know who to blame for that…

    I remember the first time I saw and sampled Three Floyds beers at a small, local brew-fest — saw the tap handle for “Alpha King” and as a home-brewer just thought, “Oh brother.”

    I didn’t have the foresight to think it was the start of a high-hopped craze, but here we are.

  2. Stan Hieronymus February 8, 2008 at 7:14 am #

    No, Steve.

    It is large international breweries buying up everything they can to “bitter” their beer. Balancing the light malt presence.

  3. Stephen Beaumont February 8, 2008 at 7:21 am #

    The growth in China may not be quite as dramatic as the numbers make it seem. Witness the following quote from 1997’s “The World Encyclopedia of Beer” by Brian Glover: “Official estimates of the number of breweries in China put it at approximately 850, though there are probably hundreds more ‘unregistered’ breweries.”

    So it could be that some, perhaps even a considerable amount, of the growth you note came from unregistered breweries becoming registered ones and thus adding their production to the country’s total. I mention this not because I think China unimportant in the world beer market in general and as a contributor to the hops shortage in particular — the nation’s impact on both fronts is obviously huge — but rather, because I find China’s beer economy to be quite fascinating.

  4. SteveH February 8, 2008 at 7:28 am #

    “It is large international breweries buying up everything they can to “bitter” their beer. Balancing the light malt presence.”

    My comment was based more on the current trend of US Micro beer — the bitter the better, so to speak.

    I thought you’d once told me that bitter is out in Euro (German) beers? And, if you balance light malt presence, how much bittering do you really need?

    Nonetheless, I agree with your plea above, let’s save the aroma hop — before we forget what it is!

  5. Stan Hieronymus February 8, 2008 at 7:53 am #

    I find China’s beer economy to be quite fascinating.

    It certainly will be interesting to see how much hops and grain production is done in China.

  6. Todd February 8, 2008 at 8:00 am #

    So, alpha trumps aroma?

    At what % alpha is this true? Where’s the line between alpha and aroma? I thougt it’s a continuum of varieties with different chemical profiles.

    Is this just difference noticed amongst the known hop varieties? Pick the hops you like?

    As a hop breeder, if you have your choice, would you breed and choose hops for aroma or alpha? At just the farmer side, I assume one would breed and choose for vigor, production, pickability, hardiness, clonability, pest and disease resistance, storability, and …..for the alpha/aroma–” whatever the brewers are choosing with $”. Did the bottom line put “alphas trumping aromas?” Did farmers put alphas over aromas or brewers? Or was it those dang hop breeders spending years of time to do this?

    I say grow the most ripping plants that make great beer/ale/lager, but what do I know, I’m just a hop breeder/farmer trying to develop great plants that make great beer- so what do you want- alpha or aroma, and how much will you pay? Do you want me to clone more of the 3.87% A plants, or really push out the 9.92% A / 3.26%B dwarf?

    An odd thing I learned was that most hop breeding companies are really just marketing companies and seem to have little to do with the farmer or the brewer. But,,,,,,,, at the moment, “alpha trumps aroma?”

    More choices. Mo’ betta’.

  7. Matt February 8, 2008 at 8:43 am #

    Stan’s right. To clarify, The phrase “alpha over aroma” doesn’t mean craft brewers are choosing to use high alpha over aroma varieties (although some are now cuz you gotta get the most bang per pound), but instead it means, as Stan said, the big brewers don’t care if the beer has aroma and flavor form the hops so will choose (and thus drive a farmer’s decision to plant) a hop just for it’s alpha content. example: one pound of Magnum at 18% or three pounds of Perle at 7% or six pounds of noble hop x at 3%. LEt’s say they all cost about $12 perpound (the brewer in this example was smart, they contracted!). Since hop prices don’t always follow the rising alpha level, a brewer who just wants to balance flavors with the hop will demand the 18% alpha hop. THey might not even care if it is magnum or some other high alpha hop. So, the big brewers drive the harvest varieties and leave the craft brewer who wants a subtle East KEnt Golding note or a fresh Cascade aroma out in the cold.

  8. Nate February 8, 2008 at 9:10 am #

    Alpha for aroma is something that people have kind of glossed over in this whole thing and I am glad you mentioned it. That has been my biggest worry in this thing when I hear that noble hops may end up the way of the dinosaurs. While I think that is a stretch, the new hop growers that are going to pop up are going to plant what pays the best and crop yield, which in this case is paid based on AA% as far as I have learned, means it will be hard for guys to plant Hallertauer or Saaz or something like that.

    Matt, well said as well.

  9. Lew Bryson February 8, 2008 at 10:18 am #

    I see this somewhat with whisky distillers. Most distillers are baffled when you ask them what malt strain they use: “the most efficient” is their response, usually in tones reserved for not-so-bright cousins. A few distillers do insist on strains like Golden Promise, and they have to contract and pay premium prices to get it.

    Might be time — past time — for craft brewers to step up and do the same. Work closer with farmers and co-ops to make sure the hops you want get planted. A-B does it; if it takes a combine of craft brewers to do it…maybe that’s what needs to be done.

  10. DT February 8, 2008 at 10:32 am #

    I don’t know, I feel like a lot of the newer high alpha hops are ALSO really great aroma hops. That’s a win/win situation for me.

  11. SteveH February 8, 2008 at 11:02 am #

    “Most distillers are baffled when you ask them what malt strain they use: “the most efficient” is their response…”

    Okay, that made things about the most clear of any of the posts — you ought to be a writer, cuz.

    But, in projecting your comparison to A-B, is it easier to grow bland, low alpha hops? Or is it just easier to brew a bland, less hoppy beer with those hops — and is that starting to show us the future of beer to come our way?

    Let me just say — I hope not.

  12. Swordboarder February 8, 2008 at 11:56 am #

    “Might be time — past time — for craft brewers to step up and do the same.”

    It’s been debated. The problem that craft brewers run into is that individually we rarely use enough to make it worth the farmer’s time to talk to us. Banded together, we would have a voice that would have an effect on what farmers grow. We even might be able to persuade a few to only grow for us.

    But, how do you organize enough breweries to make it worthwhile? 50 breweries with, lets say, 6 different beers, using every hop variety available, all growing at different rates, occasionally changing recipes, and forecasting 3 years in advance? Add in that most will want competitive pricing. It’s challenging to say the least.

    It’s why larger craft breweries contract for their hops and malt. It’s their way of telling the hop companies what they need so the farmers can grow it. The problem this year was a few fires and crop failures that dropped the overall volume of hops. Squeezed by the big brewers for years, the hop farmers have had to run as efficiently as possible which allows for fewer margins for error. The big brewers margin for error has been the craft brewers hops, and they know that they can get them if they need them.

  13. Lew Bryson February 8, 2008 at 12:39 pm #

    I have to disagree on a couple of points, Sword. It was not a few fires and crop failures that dropped the overall volume. It was a run of great crops and, I would submit, a continued success on the part of hops researchers in creating high-alpha, high-yield strains that led to a relatively steep decline in acres planted. There would have been a gradual, glide path kind of thing, but when we had a bad crop in 2006, brokers and large brewers just dipped into their reserves, which didn’t pay the growers anything…so they kept tearing out vines. 2007 brought another bad crop PLUS the fires…and suddenly there was NO reserve left, and people — brokers and buyers — panicked.

    We saw the same thing in tequila over the past 15 years, a glut followed by replanting (mostly with food crops that are instant cash, as opposed to a 10-12 year wait for agave to mature), a lower harvest that was exacerbated by a virus and some bad weather, and suddenly everyone panicked. I hear a lot of growers ripped out grape vines in California for the same reasons. It’s agriculture.

    The problem now is that the high-alpha hops that big brewers are most interested in — and while they DO use some aroma hops, the bulk of what they use are gorilla-sweat high-alpha stuff that they’re using strictly for bittering, not flavor or aroma — are the high-yielding high-alpha hops. You’ll see the major hop suppliers giving predictions in tonnes of alpha: pure bittering. We’re not talking about DIPAs and IPAs, we’re talking about millions of barrels of light beer that still needs to be hopped to 10 IBU. They make it up in the volume.

    As for your scenario of 50 breweries with 6 different beers each, and they’ll all have to step up and predict three years in advance…well, yeah. That may be what they have to do to save hop diversity. I don’t really believe that it will get that bad, I think there will be hops growers and hops brokers that will see the chance for higher profit per acre and work with smaller brewers, but it might.

    Steve — ya smartass — it’s easier to grow high-alpha, high-yield hops, because you’ve got a ready buyer. Those hops do not, generally have the aroma and flavor characteristics small brewers are looking for…but they may learn to love ’em.

  14. Swordboarder February 8, 2008 at 1:48 pm #

    Lew, I oversimplified the situation and ended up being slightly inaccurate on the history, my bad.

    I would actually be very interested in seeing the pounds of hops used by big brewers and craft brewers.

  15. Lew Bryson February 8, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    De nada, I overreacted. But I’d like to see that number, too. Remember, you’re talking about the ‘big brewers’ and ‘craft brewers’ world-wide, and I suspect the U.S. may brew more high-hop beer — in total volume, not per capita — than anywhere else. Suspect? Hell, I’m certain!

  16. Stan Hieronymus February 8, 2008 at 2:40 pm #

    I would actually be very interested in seeing the pounds of hops used by big brewers and craft brewers.

    For the big brewers (and even a few small ones) that would be pounds of hops used to produce CO2 extracts for bittering and hop oil extracts for “flavor.” That complicates the math.

  17. SteveH February 8, 2008 at 4:18 pm #

    “Steve — ya smartass — it’s easier to grow high-alpha, high-yield hops, because you’ve got a ready buyer.”

    Heh — I really wasn’t being a smart-ass on the growing difficulty side — OTOH, it sounds more like the marketing side you’re talking about!

  18. Todd February 8, 2008 at 6:46 pm #

    Hey all, this discussion is exciting! Don’t stop.

    I assume you are all speaking from a brewer’s or drinker’s view of hops choice-good beer is the choice I hear.

    Great ideas- linking brewers with hop farmers. But I have heard of contracts being broken between hop growers and farmers in the not so distant past.

    I’m actually talking about what choice would you all make if YOU are the hop breeder right now- a unique flavored ripping plant at 9.92% alpha or the unique flavored ripping plant at 3.87% alpha. Will buyers pay the same money regardless of the alpha% just because of unique flavors in the hops (and high alphas will soon flood the market?)??? And if so, what hop flavors might excite you?? A different tangerine with a delicate kumquat finish, or a spicey, earthy, dank with some kind of zippy finish, or just a classic, bitter, hoppy, robust but delicate, low cohumulone( I shouldn’t have done that), I’m not really here hop finish. How do brewers/drinkers tell the breeders what they want- and will you all( sorry, collective verbalizing) or someone still mean it 5 years down the road?

    This isn’t easy, and it sure ain’t that hard.? Will the price to the farmer be the same for alpha or aroma? He/she will plant for the buyer- if the deal is solid and trustworthy.

  19. Jeff Alworth February 9, 2008 at 3:09 pm #

    Hey Stan, I’m sorta in your neck of the woods today–in Arizona. Okay, not exactly, but a lot closer than Oregon. And right on cue, my Mom asked about the hop crisis, and I had no new news–but now I do.

    You hint that breweries with contracts may not be sitting pretty, and this is something I’ve wondered about. Remember that famous scene in Seinfeld when Jerry turns up at the car rental place, but they haven’t held his reservation? I wonder if that’s going to be the reality once the summer brewing season kicks in. I should poke around and see what Oregon brewers are reporting.

    On the India-China thing, it’s an interesting development. Indian beers are uniformly crap, and designed to be that way. Alcohol is frowned upon in India, so mainly drinking beer is for getting drunk, so common labels are “He Man” and “Knock Out.” Also, they’re prohibitively expensive thanks to massive local taxes. So I wouldn’t expect that market to grow too fast. But I have a special talent for bad predictions.

  20. Stan Hieronymus February 9, 2008 at 3:49 pm #

    Jeff – You should have waited a week for the Arizona Strong Ale Festival. Too bad.

    I haven’t heard too much concern – a little, particularly smaller breweries/pub who have had shipments delayed but been promised “it won’t be a problem” – about 2008 contracts not being honored.

    But a lot about availability and prices in 2009. And about what’s been discussed here – the rush to plant high alpha hops that have high yields, are disease resistant and don’t catch fire in the warehouse.

  21. Jay Brooks February 10, 2008 at 6:16 pm #

    Late to the party, as usual, but I heard a good news/bad news stat regarding acreage and high alphas (and I’ve confirmed it from two reliable sources). At the annual hop conference in late January, it was announced that between 5-7,000 new acres will be planted in the Pacific NW this year, around 6,000 in and around Yakima, and the rest split between Oregon and Idaho. That’s the good news, obviously. The bad? Almost all of it will be high alpha varieties.

  22. Lew Bryson February 10, 2008 at 7:05 pm #

    Jeff,
    Don’t bet on Indians not buying booze. India is an immense market for whisky — home-made (made from stuff like molasses, fergodssake) and imported (which just got a huge boost from a drop in ridiculously high import duties) — and as the economy booms they are expected to buy a lot more to enjoy the fruits of their labors. We talk about this a lot in the whisky biz.

  23. Swordboarder February 11, 2008 at 9:35 am #

    Todd,
    We should discuss. As craft brewers we are very interested in varieties of flavors. Percent alpha means nothing to us when we’re looking for flavor.

    Are you familiar with the concept of dry hopping? We get little to no bitterness from the process, but can use 1-3 pounds of hops per barrel in order to get the flavors we’re looking for.

  24. Stan Hieronymus February 11, 2008 at 10:01 am #

    Todd, We should discuss.

    I’ve mailed you two an e-mail introduction so you can carry on the conversation. (Not that I mind if it persists here; up to you guys.)

  25. Jeff February 11, 2008 at 4:39 pm #

    Lew, whisky and beer are very different bags. Whisky is a big value in terms of booze per ounce. Beer is downscale and big bucks. I don’t have stats, but my guess is that a sizeable percentage of it is sold to visitors. (A single bottle–usually a large one–often costs more than an entire meal at a restaurant.)

    And that moonshine should not be refered to as “whisky.” Periodically a bad batch blinds an entire village. That’s strictly low-income, off-grid stuff. I have had a nice tipple of it in the foothills of the Himalayas, though. Clean and strong.

  26. Lew Bryson February 11, 2008 at 7:10 pm #

    Hey, Jeff, you won’t get an argument from me on Indian “whisky.” I’m already on record in Malt Advocate on that: it ain’t whisky. Period. And the taxes are heading down, according to what I”m reading, anyway. Our boy Vijay “I bought Mendocino” Mallya is in the catbird seat.

  27. Lew Bryson February 11, 2008 at 7:13 pm #

    OH, wait: by “home-made” I meant domestic production, the manufactured and bottled stuff, not what’s referred to as “Mekong whisky” in other parts of Asia, the kind you get in cloudy plastic bottles.

    The Indian distillers keep bugging the EU to let them sell it in Europe as “whisky.” My opinion: they can sell all they want in the EU, so long as they call it what the rest of the world calls molasses-based distillate: rum.

  28. Jeff Alworth February 12, 2008 at 9:03 am #

    Lew, yeah, two kinds of homemade. The homemade you’re talking about comes from the pre-deregulation period, when all companies in India had to be owned by Indian firms. That meant all the hooch was made by Indians for Indians who knew bupkis about hooch. So you ended up with very strange facsimiles of the original liquors. In 1989, I bought a bottle of Johnny Walker on a regional flight back into India from Nepal and sold it on the black market to a dubious-looking fellow in a back alley. It was after a 7-month stint in South Asia, and I’d risked my last $20 on the chance I could get enough to pay for a hotel room and dinner for a few nights. It worked!

    The other homemade hooch is what people really drink in numbers because it’s cheap and strong.

    I haven’t followed the tax issue, but that’s definitely the main barrier. I have no doubt Vijay “Wish I Would Have Bought Full Sail” Mallya’s on that. Big bucks to be made if he can get the price down.

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