I recently attended the annual German brewing trade show in Nürnberg called Brau Beviale. It’s a large show that occurs two months after the current year’s harvest of barley and hops. There’s always a buzz around the supply, demand and pricing of key beer ingredients.
Hops often take center stage on my radar since so much of the innovation and creative flavors developed in American craft brews take their cues from hops. Hops provide bitterness, flavor and aroma to beer. Now more than ever craft brewers are exploring the wide variety of flavors and aromas that can be “squeezed” from the hop cone. As well there’s a realization that different types of bitterness perceptions can be derived depending on the chemistry of the hop variety and the processing of those hops at the farm and the brewery.
In terms of bitterness, it’s the “alpha acid” content that the world of hops has traditionally based their farming practices and pricing. With this year’s record harvest of hops, the tonnage of harvested alpha acid has created a supply that will currently last two full years at current production and growth rates. The price of hops based on alpha acid has plummeted. In short, there’s a glut.
Meanwhile craft brewers seek hops prized for their oil content lending tremendous variety of flavors and aroma to beer. See Hops become important key to beer diversity.
Contrary to “bittering” hops, the price of aroma and flavor hops is slowly increasing in cost. Worldwide there is comparably less demand, but demand is slowly increasing due to small brewers in the USA demanding nuanced hop qualities.
Aroma/flavor hops are harder to grow and in general provide more variable yields and are only slowly in the mix of farmers shifting from alpha to aroma hop planting. There are several other factors that are both limiting their supply and increasing the price; cost of energy, private licensing of varieties in limited production.
Meanwhile I recently learned both at the Brau show and through those in the know here in the USA that there are as many as 15,000 to 20,000 cross-bred hops planted each year. Only about 1-2% of these make the “cut” for a second year of observation. Over an 8 year breeding and observation period most will succumb to disease, wilting, agronomic and yield factors and more take their toll. It takes 8 year to come up with only 2 or 3 new varieties (from the original 20,000) that are suitable for sustainable harvests and brewers needs. New varieties are projected to be able to resist disease for about 50 years before disease organisms eventually mutate and are able to attack the hop variety.
This is the behind-the-scenes investment in hop breeding and growing that growers, brokers, distributors and brewers deal with. Most beer drinkers don’t understand and don’t care to. But it’s an important part of the value brewers factor into their beer, hoping beer drinkers appreciate the qualities that blossom and emerge beer after beer.
It’s a good thing that beer drinkers and hop farmers understand the needs and priorities of the tier in the middle, the brewer.