A Bitter Turn

17 12 2007

Envision this period, perhaps, as high school. A time of sweeping, turbulent formation, not unlike the head creeping up along the sides of a thick glass in a rashly-poured drink. Watch as the blooming (or wilting) occurs.

American small-scale brewing, since 2000, has experienced a faster growth than virtually any other segment of the food and drink market. Across America, from the Edenic Northwest to the skeptical New York, local breweries and ‘beer bars’ abound as people demand more from their beer. Really inspiring stuff.

But over the next few years, it will experience a challenge that could either stop the craft brewing world in its tracks or help prove that it’s here to stay. In other words, craft brewing just got its locker and homeroom assignment. It’s about to get its most unforgiving test yet.

Over the past few months, there have been murmurs that an international hop shortage is upon us. One of the main ingredients in beer, hops are the bittering agents that keep beer from being an undrinkable, sweet syrup. And because of a variety of factors, from a devastating hail storm in the Slovenia to a bad year in the Czech Republic to limited hop fields across the globe (the 123,000 acres of hop fields in 2006 is almost half of 1986’s total acreage), the results could decimate the craft beer world.

First, prices will shoot up. Cascade hops have gone from $7 to $10/lb, an increase that doesn’t seem like a whole lot until you try to mass-produce this stuff. Suddenly, a 6-pack that cost a manageable $9 could jump to $11-12, possibly repelling potential new customers and even making existing ones reconsider over the long term. Simple supply and demand.

But more importantly, big breweries can afford to weather these prices. The Big 3 (soon to be the Big 2), with their hulking margins, won’t be affected as acutely. Also, because it’s the policy of these breweries to buy hops higher in alpha acid (making them more bitter), thus allowing them to add fewer hops in the beer, the shortage is a small hurdle.

More, if this becomes a bidding war, Big Beer could go so far as to buy up a good deal of hops, further driving up prices. That’s a little conspiracy-theory for me, though.

Not that price is the only variable here; that flavor thing is a big deal, too.

Beer is all chemistry and precision. Of the variety of ways in which professional brewers separate themselves from homebrewers, outside of beards and bankroll, record-keeping is one of them. A recipe is followed down to the 1/100th ounce.

But if a beer calls for a certain type of hop and it’s unavailable, the recipe changes dramatically. There are scores of hops used in professional brewing, certainly, but each one has a distinct character. So brewmasters may have to settle for approximation, a compromise that will not be easy to hide in the American brew market, where extreme, uber-bitter beers are standard.

People who drink beers by Dogfish Head, Rogue, Stone, Bear Republic, Victory and hundreds of others have come to appreciate the harmony of the hops crammed into each pint. A change in recipe would be akin to New Coke, or Toyoto overhauling the Camry. The breweries might never recover.

A number of sources have said that this challenge offers a chance for brewmasters to be creative, that they’re forced to find new ways to make their beers exciting. And if there’s one thing brewmasters are, it’s creative. And well-bearded.

The solution would be logical — just grow more hops — if it didn’t take three years for a vine to reach its maturity.

So this period, these three years, will reveal to us the constitution of a movement that has thus move more or less consistently upward since the late 1980s, with a slight mid-90s hitch before the recent thrust. The shortage doesn’t signify crisis if navigated deftly. By the time this is done, craft brewing could have proven itself more than a fad, able to withstand a direct challenge to its existence. It will have grown up.

Let’s just hope it can make it ’til senior year.

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2 responses

17 12 2007
Justin

Craft beer’s customer base has always been willing to pay a lot more for their suds than those who prefer watery, yellow stuff. I have faith that beer advocates will not be so easily converted to Natty Light slamming budget drinkers. I, for one, will not stop drinking good beer because it’s a little more expensive now. One must drink something, no?

Craft beer is something more than a simple commodity. Customers are emotionally attached to particular brands, recipes, etc. These are the kind of people who will pay a few extra bucks for a beer that is close to their hearts (or livers?).

Also, the weakness of the dollar is probably a significant player in this price elevation. If imported hops become uneconomical, the cheaper American product will become more desirable and thus more expensive–for now. This incentivizes further investment in production and research–industry growth. I don’t think I’m the only one fancying getting involved with hop growing.

The demand for heartier or higher yielding cultivars may actually lead to a wider and richer selection, followed by new, exciting beers. Which would be a good thing.

I don’t think craft brewing is in its adolescence. I think this is all just part of the brewing industry recovering from prohibition coupled with, of course, advancing technology and maturing palates.

Take for instance the wine industry in Europe. They have suffered catastrophic disaster periodically and price has fluctuated accordingly, but the demand for the product has been consistent.

Craft brewing is here to stay (and in some places has been around for hundreds of years). Some less established brewers might have difficulties, but it seems hard to believe that companies like Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer, Anchor, Stone, etc will really be threatened. The market will correct itself, prices will stabilize, and we will drink glorious American ales and lagers until they (Islamofascists, regular fascists, and MADD) pry them from our cold, stiff fingers.

Now it’s time for a Smutty Robust Porter.

18 12 2007
Drew

Most craft beers in the US are modeled after styles of beers that have been brewed in Europe for centuries. Often the US crafters are only putting their own slight tweak on an ancient recipe. With that said, I’m really into Flemish style beers at the moment. If you ever make it up to State College Kev we’ll have to go to Zenos.

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