During the Hop Grower’s Convention that was hosted by Stone Brewing Company I got to meet with the owners of 47 Hops, a mid-sized hop grower and distributor that helps bring some of the much-sought-after hops to the market. The evening was a lot of talk about the hop industry as it exists right now and some of the challenges ahead that will end up ultimately affecting the type of beer available and what the smaller breweries can make.
The guys at 47 Hops were kind enough to treat a few other bloggers and me to beers, cigars, and pizza, though anyone present could tell you we were there mostly for the opportunity to chat about hops with someone in the industry. As many enthusiasts already figured out, one of the big problems facing the industry going forward is the massive increase in demand for certain varieties of hops. This means that citra and mosaic hops are becoming so much in demand that it is impossible for smaller breweries to get them.
Consumers can demand beers made with these delicious hops (that among other things deliver some delicious citrus flavors that San Diego beer fans have grown to love) but there simply isn’t enough of either hop being grown to keep up with demand. Part of this comes from a sad reality of hop growing. In order to increase production to keep up with demand there needs to be some serious increase in funding, and the money just isn’t there.
And as the amount of money involved becomes much larger, the length of contracts required before someone can buy hops becomes that much longer. Though five years ago the thought of a five year contract for hops seemed unthinkable, it is now a requirement especially if a brewery wants to keep some consistency and the hop growers want to know that they are going to be able to get the return on investment that makes expansion possible.
Aside from funding, another thing keeping hop capacity from growing as fast as the hop heads might like comes down to certain requirements before a piece of land can be good for growing. Aside from finding the right place to grow as far as climate and quality of soil, growers have to worry about being within an hour’s drive of some cold storage facility. Just as heat can harm a hoppy beer and take away that bite, so too heat can harm the hop oils while they are still present in the buds, leaving the grower with a product that is much harder to move. And of course building a cold storage facility large enough to keep everything and keeping that running is not cheap.
It is also not as easy to get those hops out to brewers in the form of wet hops or whole cone hops. This is because while that form of hops provides some fantastic intense flavors, they also are not able to survive long voyages. Thus, when hops are going to be transported from Washington State, where many of the hops are grown, to east coast cities like New York City the most practical way of doing that is by processing the hops into pellets. The same thing is true for hops shipped overseas. When hops are transported in large boats across the water, the best way to make sure they survive the voyage is to process the hops into pellets. This if why pellets still remain the most common way of purchasing hops.
So with demand growing for certain varieties of hops, what is a likely prediction for the future? Most of the small breweries are not going to be able to get their hands on some of the more popular varieties. Hopefully this will lead to some experimentation in the sorts of flavors present in the beers as brewers try to make West Coast Style beers without some of the now common and expected hops. I expect some of the brewers will do just fine and will find ways to make interesting styles of IPAs with common varieties hops that hop-heads have otherwise gotten tired of. Maybe this will lead to some experimentation with the type of malts used such that things don’t all taste like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
I also expect that it will be hard for smaller breweries to get their hands on large quantities of certain hops over the long term. The longer contracts are expensive and there is only so much to go around. So once they brew a fantastic beer with certain varieties of hops, without a contract in place that beer won’t taste exactly the same the next time. I am already seeing this around San Diego with smaller breweries IPAs varying from batch to batch due to supply. This makes it hard to consistently order the same beer from a smaller brewery if the small variations in hop variety change your enjoyment.
I’ve realized recently that while I love hoppy beers, I don’t love every single variety. There are a lot of flavors of hops that I love, the citrus, tropical fruit, and occasionally the floral, and other flavors that I like sometimes and other times can’t stand. Though in some ways that is part of the fun of exploring beers and IPAs in particular. It is fun to learn to talk specifically about flavors you like so you can ask the bartender how a specific batch is and make a decision based on that without having to try a sample.
And for the beer drinkers who can’t stand hoppy beers, don’t expect that they are going to disappear at any time but you might appreciate the experimentation in flavors other than hops that we may see out of this. It is always great when a small brewery makes a beer that showcases the unique flavors of rye in just the right balance. Others are waiting for an explosion of wild yeast flavors that have yet to become mainstream in San Diego but that enthusiasts have been enjoying for years. Scarcity of certain varieties and increase in cost may help push those trends to the mainstream more quickly as well.