If there’s one thing that craft brewing is known for, it’s hops, the flowers that provide the beloved bitterness, citrus and general deliciousness behind some of our favorite beers. From the increasingly ubiquitous IPA to the imperials and triples to pale ales and hoppy pilsners, hops are everywhere. And that’s why we’re running out.
With the craft beer boom in the early aughts, hops were thrown into boilers in unprecedented volumes. Certain strains became popular while brewers like Lagunitas, Oskar Blues and Sierra Nevada all grew rapidly. Popular hop strains are now almost impossible to get your hands on. As a result, new brewers are struggling to make the beer they want to make. While we aren’t in danger of losing beer altogether, small breweries are certainly feeling the strain of high demand and limited supply.
Since they started bubbling up in the mid ’80s, small craft breweries have skyrocketed in numbers. By the end of 2014, Forbes reported that there were 3,400 breweries in the US, up from 44 in 1979. While the country’s biggest beer providers, like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors, continue to succeed, there has been a constant rise in craft brew consumption. According to the Brewers Association, the overall beer market in 2014 was valued at $101.5 billion and the craft beer market was 19.3 percent of that at $19.6 billion. While that 19.3 percent dwindles down to just 11 percent when measured by volume instead of cost, that’s still substantial, especially when you consider all the advantages that global distributors have when they are making cheap beer in unfathomable volumes. You get a sense of the scale of production with the knowledge that of the 3,400 or so breweries in the country, 98.6 percent of them are considered “craft”. That means that 1.4 percent of the breweries are producing 89 percent of the beer by volume.
So, what does this mean for hops? Well, per barrel of beer, craft uses more than four times the amount of hops as traditional breweries. Typically, IPAs have at least two pounds per barrel, while traditional macro brews have less than half a pound — but some new breweries are scaling that up significantly. Samuel Richardson, owner and brewmaster at Other Half Brewing, said that their First Anniversary IPA, which was brewed just once in January, had a whopping 10 pounds of hops per barrel of beer. For a 20-barrel batch, that’s 200 pounds of hops. The hops that went into this beer weren’t just whatever they had in the shop either. They mixed Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial, Cascade and Ahtanum, all hops that have become popular in breweries across America. They produce sought-after flavors that are hard to replicate by mixing other hops. These are the hops that are becoming increasingly harder to get ahold of.
Know (Some of) Your Hops
Galaxy: A highly sought-after hop out of Australia. Galaxy has a massive oil content and is commonly used for its pungent citrus and passionfruit flavors. It’s most common in pale ales and IPAs.
Best Examples: Galaxy IPA, Other Half Brewing; Double Galaxy, Hill Farmstead
Mosaic: Mosaic is a versatile hop because of the range of aromas and flavors that it imparts. Depending on what it’s surrounded with, it can taste like anything from citrus, to pine, to bubblegum.
Best Examples: Focal Banger, The Alchemist; Dirtwolf Double IPA, Victory Brewing
Amarillo: A flowery, spicy aroma hop that is privately owned and only grown by Virgil Gamache Farms in Washington State. The rhizomes are not available for purchase.
Best Examples: Hoparillo Triple IPA, Knee Deep Brewing; Single Hop Amarillo IPA, Mikkeller; IPA, Smuttynose
Simcoe: Described as fruity and piny, Simcoe is extremely popular with hop-heavy ales because of its complex aroma. Its place of origin is in Washington State, and it’s commonly compared to cascade hops, though its parent rhizomes are unknown.
Best Examples: 60 Minute IPA, Dogfish Head; Simcoe Spring Ale, Peak Organic; Jim, Hill Farmstead
Citra: Citra is best known for its smooth but very strong floral and citrus flavor. It is popular with the hop generation because it has a big hop kick while still giving a strong flavor.
Best Examples: Zombie Dust, Three Floyds Brewing; Torpedo IPA, Sierra Nevada
The first thing Matt Monahan and Samuel Richardson did after they signed the lease to open Other Half Brewing in Brooklyn, New York, was sign hop contracts. These contracts ensure that Other Half will be able to get the hops they need from farms even as other competitors come along. The way a small brewery like Other Half can get these contracts isn’t as simple as paying up. Richardson came into Brooklyn with 13 years of brewing experience, which gave him sway with suppliers. He promised to produce some of the hoppiest beers around, which means they’ll be buying more hops than their output volume suggests. But most importantly, some of their contracts stretch as far as 21 years into the future. Particularly for hops like Galaxy, Mosaic and Citra, which are used in Other Half’s signature line of single-hop IPAs. A 21-year contract means Richardson and Monahan had to know ahead of time what they were going to need years down the line. Small, fresh-out-of-the-gate breweries don’t always have that luxury, but they’re an important part of the chain of hop popularity.
Michael Kiser, founder of Good Beer Hunting, a website, podcast and marketing guide for small startup breweries, explained a bit about the trend right now. “Those little guys make those hops popular,” he said, referring to cool, new-wave hops. “Then the midsize brewers all the way up to the big brewers say ‘Cool, we’ll take it from here.’ And they go and buy the entire lot of Amarillo on the market.” That’s what is really straining the craft brewery: not the supply of hops in general, but the popularization of specific hop profiles like Citra and Simcoe. These strains have worked their way up the chain from tiny, startup craft breweries to established middle-sized guys to industry leaders like Lagunitas or Sierra Nevada. Once the bigger breweries start going after these hops, it’s easy for them to buy all of them by offering suppliers longer, larger contracts. Hop farmers are incentivized to sell to people who can guarantee them money, and big breweries are simply more able to do that. The largest beer makers though, like Budweiser and Coors, have yet to try to go as hoppy as the leaders in craft. “Macro brew hasn’t really gone after hops yet,” Kiser said. “If they do, everybody’s fucked.”
“Macro brew hasn’t really gone after hops yet,” Kiser said. “If they do, everybody’s fucked.”
Even established breweries with near-perfect reputations, like Hill Farmstead in Vermont, are feeling some of the pressure. Shaun Hill, head brewer at Hill Farmstead, said in an interview with Kiser that he is having trouble getting the hops he needs to make some of his best, most famous beers. “If everyone wants to use the best ingredients, it means that not everyone is using the best ingredients.” In another interview, Kevin Lemp of 4 Hands Brewery in St. Louis said that he’s also seen brewers struggling to get supply. “Hops are amazing right now,” Lemp said. “If you’re opening up a brewery right now and you want to get Cascade, I don’t think you can get Cascade for like three years. And for me that’s crazy. That’s not one of the sexy hops right now.”
Chris Hansen, one of three owners at Climbing Bines Brewery in New York’s Finger Lakes, had his own solution to the hops problem: grow his own. American hops started out in upstate New York before disease and, finally, Prohibition wiped them all out and forced growers to the Pacific Northwest, the current hop capital. But Hansen said he isn’t worried about disease getting to his crops. “A lot of the problem was that they didn’t have anything to control it, so when [the disease] came through, they didn’t have the fungicides.” When Hansen and co-owner Brian Karweck first put eight plants in the ground six years ago, they were all-organic and saw great success. The next year they added 32 more, and 60 more the year after that. Climbing Bines started beer production in 2013 with an acre and a half of hop farm, regulated by the insurance of newly implemented fungicides and pesticides; last season, they produced 800 pounds of hops. That covers about 60 percent of the brewery’s hop needs. As the brewery grows, so does the farm, and Hansen and his crew are changing irrigation systems, trellises and soils in order to maximize their plot of land.
“If everyone wants to use the best ingredients, it means that not everyone is using the best ingredients.”
It may seem like a great idea to go start a hop farm, but Kiser said it’s not that simple. “The timeline on agriculture is so fundamentally different than the timeline on the beer market,” he said. It takes years for farms to move from putting plants in the ground to harvesting mature, usable hops. “It’s not like growing a corn field,” he went on. “You don’t just water it and it grows and you harvest it. You have to hang these vines, you have to understand how vines even work, you have to build the furniture to hold them up.” The market is already years behind the demand, and the crop moves so slowly that over the next few years, it will only get further behind. Then, if farmers do decide to grow hops, they need to choose a hop varietal to grow, and that introduces another problem. Putting a popular hop varietal into the ground, like a citrusy hop, might seem like a good investment now, but when it’s ready to harvest in a few years, Kiser said, “no body could give a shit.” That’s because the beer market is driven by trends and is constantly changing, while hop farming has much more inertia.
In the end, the hop shortage is having its biggest effect in taking the best hops out of the hands of new and small breweries. Unfortunately for the adventurous beer drinkers, these are the breweries often producing the most creative beers that use the hops to their full potential by brewing small batches, dry-hopping and aging in innovative ways. But, as with all creative endeavors, operating within constraint spawns new forms of innovation. Instead of closing down due to the hops shortage, breweries have pivoted and started brewing more saisons, yeast-driven and sour beers, which don’t rely as much on specific, hard-to-find hops, according to Kiser.
“If macro beer is just gonna be like ‘cool we’re gonna do hoppy beers now,’ craft beer goes the other way and says, ‘cool we’re gonna do yeasty stuff now, try to keep up.’”