If you enjoy bitter beers, it might not be a very -- forgive me -- hoppy new year. A worldwide shortage of hops may mean higher prices for some favorite local microbrews. Hops, a perennial vine, provide beer's bitter flavor.
The hops shortage stems from major crop failures in Europe, growing beer sales in China and South America and, thanks to the weak dollar, rising exports of American hop varieties. The shortage is expected to last through 2008, and the market could remain unstable into 2011, due to the amount of time it takes to establish hop vines.
"It's what everyone in the craft brewing industry is talking about," says Tom Porter, owner of Arena-based Lake Louie beers. Last Friday, Porter delivered the last cases of his hoppiest beer, the India pale ale Kiss the Lips, to area stores. The IPA style is known for aggressive bitterness, thanks to the generous amounts of hops that go into making it. (Hops are a preservative, and IPAs originated in the 1700s, when the British discovered highly hopped beers could better withstand long sea voyages to India.)
"We're crazy for hoppy beer," states Porter. "[Kiss the Lips] is my favorite of my beers, and I'm bummed that I can't brew it right now -- that is, unless I find a lucky dime that points me to some hops." Even if Porter turns up more hops, they'll cost more than a few lucky dimes. Some varieties of hops have increased from $3 per pound to more than $40. In the meantime, Porter doesn't expect Kiss the Lips to be on local shelves again until next fall at the earliest.
One of the area's most popular beers is Ale Asylum's Hopalicious. "I was running short of the hops needed for it this fall and was really worried," says Dean Coffey, owner and brewmaster at the east-side brewery. "The Great Dane loaned me a box of hops to get me by. That box of hops is worth more than $1,000, or four times what it cost last year."
This generosity among local brewers reflects the seriousness of the situation in what is normally a very competitive business. "We are all talking, trying to help each other find hop varieties, and we're willing to jointly make a buy if we find one to make," says Porter.
Brewers generally purchase hops under contract from wholesalers, one or more years before the hops are used. So the shortage is bad news for brewers who don't have a contract, or who want more hops than they contracted for. "Right now, if you wanted to start a brewery or brewpub I don't know how you could do it, without hops," says Coffey. "I got lucky. I had never signed a contract for hops until last summer, and I did it just before all this broke. Otherwise I would be in serious trouble."
What does the shortage mean for local beer drinkers? Look for a jump in the price of Wisconsin-made microbrew this year, from 50 cents to $2 more per six-pack. Also affecting the price is the rising cost of bottles and grains, including malted barley, which has fermentable sugars that are turned into bubbles and alcohol. "I'm already paying over 20% more for malt and bottles," says Porter.
Some brews will be affected more than others. "Right now, locally, we tend to see stronger sales of the sweet winter beers," says Porter. "But come summer, the bitter flavors are even more popular, and you'll see fewer hoppy beers to pick from."
The shortage also will affect home brewers. "The variety of hops they can find will force them to be more creative," says David Mitchell, owner of Madison's Wine and Hop Shop. "Two of the eight most commonly used hops in homebrewing are all gone for 2008, and more varieties will follow." Mitchell already is limiting the amount of hops he sells per purchase: 6 ounces for each $50 order.
One consequence of the shortage is renewed interest in locally grown hops, but since newly planted hops don't mature for three years, no immediate relief is in sight. Wisconsin was a leading hop producer 150 years ago, but today most U.S. hops are produced in the Pacific Northwest.
For now, Mark Duchow, brewmaster at Mount Horeb's Grumpy Troll Restaurant and Brewery, says he has about 75% of the hops he would like to have on hand for 2008. As an experiment, he will be releasing a beer in the coming weeks made with locally grown wild hops.
Duchow affirms that for small brewers who run short of hops, one alternative is to make sweeter, maltier beers. So if you enjoy the full-bodied Belgian ales and fruity Lambics, there could be opportunities for you in what is otherwise a -- forgive me -- hopless situation.