The Hops Headache

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By the fall of 2007, a chain of events led to a worldwide shortage of hops, the critical ingredient whose tiny cones give beer its floral aromas and the bitterness to balance the sweetness of malt.

Hops had been in surplus for a decade, pushing prices down and driving many hop farmers either out of business or into other crops, including some that could be diverted to ethanol production. The acreage devoted to hops production fell by as much as 30% worldwide. Here in the U.S., the Department of Agriculture estimated that our hops stores were down 22% from 2006, to the lowest point in over 25 years.

Then a warehouse fire in the Yakima, WA hop-growing region destroyed 5% of the U.S. harvest. Rogue hail storms in Europe had devastating local effects. Suddenly, there were no hops to be had.

Farmers still in the hops business must have welcomed prices that went up by 20% for widely grown varieties and up to 80% for specialty hops. But brewers, especially craft brewers who were using specialty hops with abandon in highly bitter styles, were in a panic.

Still, there is a one-on-one relationship between hops and brewing, virtually the only industry where this crop is used. Otmar Weingarten, director of the German hops growers association, may be shedding crocodile tears about the soaring prices, but he knows his members’€™ long term interests are in synch with brewers’€™. ‘€œHigh prices aren’€™t really good for hop growers. They lead to less hop use, isomerized hops [chemically processed hops] for efficiency, and worse beer ‘€” which is all bad in the end.’€

Facing the shortage, farmers are scrambling to replant hops fields. But the rangy vines take at least two to four years to reach maturity, which leaves some thirsty years ahead. Brewers of the most highly hopped beers are already discovering how to wring more bitterness and aroma out of the hops they have.

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