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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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