Hopping mad

Trouble is brewing among craft breweries as the world’s supply of hops, the bitter blossoms that give beer its distinguishing bite and aromatic qualities, has fallen to an unprecedented low. While recipe innovation and rising prices at the tap are keeping our local craft brewers in business, the shortage hurts.

Sacramento Brewing Company brewmaster Peter Hoey has seen prices of his favorite hop varieties climb from $5 per pound a year ago to as much as $30 today. Pint prices at the pub have increased by 50 cents, and six-packs on the shelf are at 10 bucks now. “It’s probably costing us twice what it did last year to make our beer,” said Hoey. “Thing is, the market won’t let us double our prices. Nobody’s going to buy a beer for six bucks, so we’ve had to eat some of the cost.”

In 1992, 236,067 acres of hop vines thrived around the globe, according to a report from Hopunion CBS LLC in Yakima. In 2006, just 113,417 acres remained. The decline has come after a great surplus of dry-storage warehouse hops in the late 1990s sparked a price crash. That, in turn, inspired many farmers to pull out their hop vines and shift into other, more profitable markets. Meanwhile, the hop surplus has run out.

Scott Cramlet, head brewer at Rubicon Brewing Company, says he has had to scramble to locate the hops he needs for his flagship IPA beer, a style generally known for its high hop contents and bitterness. Cramlet says the beer’s recipe includes three to four varieties of hops, some of which were hard to locate this year. Prices for one such variety–Columbus hops–have jumped from $3 per pound to $25 in the last year, Cramlet reports, and brewpub pint prices climbed from $3.75 to $4 as well.

Like many small-scale beer makers, Cramlet has long relied on a ready availability of hops to purchase by the box as needed, rather than entering into long-term contracts. “I’ve never bought a year in advance like a lot of guys, and it’s still never been a problem to find hops. This year we wanted 1,200 pounds of Cascade hops, but we could only get 300. I’ve been brewing with Rubicon for 18 years, and I’ve just never seen anything like this.”

Destructive weather around the globe and a growing thirst for beer in India and China have played a part in the hop shortage. But high prices have also motivated many farmers to re-enter the hop business. Vines require up to three years to become commercially viable. Brewers predict that 2008’s harvest will be another bad one, but things could get better in 2009. Until then, hopheads, hold on.