Examining the Current Hop Crop
Hops grow quickly during their growing season, perhaps an inch or two a day at peak. Hop-heavy IPAs continue to pour quickly from taps, and disappear from store shelves. While small brewers can hand off a fresh IPA to a taproom or brewpub patron, receive immediate feedback and tweak recipes quite quickly, hop growers don’t have the same agility.
Hop acreage devoted to the aroma varieties coveted by many brewers and beer drinkers has grown significantly in the United States during the past five years. Aroma hops could represent 60 percent of total U.S. hop acreage in 2014, the Hop Growers of America (HGA) estimates. That’s up from less than 35 percent back in 2009, when U.S. hop acreage was about 40,000 acres, right about where it is in 2014. In those five years, total acreage dipped below 30,000 acres and has steadily come back, according the HGA reports, thanks in large part to those piney, citrusy, resiny beauties ideal for hoppy American styles.
This year’s hop acreage, however, cannot be harvested the way the similarly sized acreage of 2009 was. Or at least not at the same speed. Aroma hops have a much shorter harvesting window than their alpha sisters. Hop growers will have just a few weeks to pick and process all of the aroma hops this September, working their expensive harvesting and pelletizing machines hard.
Looking out beyond this year’s harvest, even more acreage devoted to aroma hops would probably require some hefty investments in new processing machinery. According to some growers, hop prices are just not high enough to support such a multi-million dollar investment.
The popularity of flavors offered by some relatively new proprietary varieties adds to the complexity. Growers are shifting acreage to varieties like Simcoe, Citra and Mosaic about as fast as they can, but growing them comes at the extra price of royalty payments to the breeding programs that created them. So growers, used to historically inelastic demand for hops (which brings sharp price spikes and drops), tend to be extra-careful when expanding acreage devoted to these varieties. These farmers also face mounting labor costs, challenges to plant more lucrative crops and much more. Don’t forget about Mother Nature, either.
Even though hops quickly spiral skyward during the growing season, new planting takes a couple of years to mature into a full-yield crop. Most brewers commit to contracts for their hops up to five years out, but due to the slower-moving hop growing industry, expectations outside of those contracts could prove costly.
A renewed interest in growing hops in states outside the Pacific Northwest could help, but it’ll take a little while for other states to become a major part of U.S. hop growing. Interest in imported hops, including some hot Southern Hemisphere varieties, could also help alleviate the pressure on U.S. growers. So could greater interest in brands that require a bit of restraint when it comes to hop additions.