Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Hop Crop Drops A Lot

Hop Supply and Early 2007 Crop Update

Here are some comments from Ralph Olson's talk two weeks ago during Hopunion's annual Hops & Brew School seminars in Yakima (also used as the basis for a Hop Update presentation I gave last Saturday to the MBAA District New England in Portland, ME). Ralph is very busy at the moment between receiving hops, buying hops and quoting different brewers for contracts, so he asked me to send this post.

"The hop world is upside down. In the future we see the possibility of brewers shutting down for lack of hops."

For US hops 2007 is looking like an average crop, but not a bumper crop.

Slovenia (grower of Styrians) lost at least 1/3 and possibly as much as 1/2 of their crop to a hailstorm.

The Czech crop is down 25% this year. Estimated alphas on Czech Saaz from the 2007 crop are 2.7 2.9.

The German crop is average at best with earlier aroma hops coming in below normal (such as Hallertau Mittelfruh).

New Zealand and Australia crops this year (which arrived in the US in June and July) were normal.

England is almost out of the hop business. Their acreage of 2,400 in 2006 (down from 17,000 in 1976) represents 2 percent of the worldwide acreage.

World acreage:
1986: 215,600
1992: 236,000
2006: 123,000

Ralph's best guess is that in 1992 the acreage should have been between 160,000 - 170,000 if it was to match world demand/usage at that time. The 1990s' excess hop crop ended up being processed into pellets and extracts, building up substantial excess inventory. Excess production that was 2, 3 and 5 years old was selling on the open market and as a result brought prices down. Hop prices had dropped so low in recent years that in many cases they were lower than what it costs to grow them. For example: prices got as low as $1.70/lb. for pellets of Cascade. That is way below what it takes for a hop grower to cover his costs.

High-alpha hops and some aroma hops are going overseas - the high rate of the Euro is a factor. In the spot market for high-alpha hops, growers are not putting a price on them yet. They're waiting to see how high the prices may go.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the prices were depressed and growers were starting to throw in the towel, to either switch to other crops, or sell out to real estate developers. The ones who stayed in it and managed to survive without going under are pleased to be in this situation now, which is 180 degrees opposite from where it was about 10 years ago.

The demand for Cascades is up 30% this year alone. We are 300-400 acres short on Cascade compared to where we need to be. Cascade acreage was 1,003 in 2001, jumped up to 2,120 in 2003 (because one major brewer announced plans to use it, but then reversed course) and total Cascade acreage is now back near the same 2001-year-level, at 1,116 in 2006.

Prices are the highest they've ever been - and it's beyond comprehension. Cascades were priced at $7/lb. three weeks ago and are currently being quoted at or near $10.00/lb. Willamettes went from $5.50 to $7.00/lb. and may also get to $10/lb.

It takes three years to get to full production on a new hop field, however, we don't have the number of growers needed to put new acres in (the total of US growers is about 45, down from more than 2000 in 1978. About new 2,000 acres are going in this year almost all of those are high alpha. The Cascade increase in acreage is 0.

"We are, in my opinion, in trouble."

What's the bottom line? Certain varieties are getting a lot more expensive. A few varieties will run out faster than ever. Brewers have to be willing to try other varieties. Brewmasters, brewery owners, and marketing and sales managers must prepare for the potential need to substitute different hops, to replace varieties that currently give your beers their "signature" flavor. That's what we'll have to get used to, the fact that there may be slight flavor variations over the next several years, as the hop industry works to correct this situation. It's not going to get better soon, but will be likely just as bad, or worse, for the crops from 2008 and 2009, in other words, for beers brewed from now through 2010.

Wish we had better news to report!

David Edgar
Mountain West Brewery Supply, Inc.

The note-taker, David Edgar, is the past director of the Association of Brewers, itself the predecessor to the Brewers Association. Edgar shepherded that organization from an ad-hoc-ish group to its position now as more of a professionally run advocate for small and craft breweries.

HopUnion is a major US hop grower, importer, and supplier.

Contrary to Ralph Olsen's statement, I'm not worried that breweries will be shutting down en masse.

The cost of hops may not be not trivial, but it is not the primary cost of producing a beer. Larger craft breweries (and of course the mainstream breweries) sign yearly contracts for hop varietals based upon estimated usage. But if a particular brand takes off - or a new beer- a brewery could find itself short of a certain varietal.

I first noticed this story on Stan Hieronymus' blog.

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