Back in 1883, an essay in the book Hop Culture in the United States titled “Influence of fashion on the use of hops” noted that “The brewing industry is not exempt from the influence of fashion,” that the taste for hops had diminished in previous decades and that “fashion takes strange freaks, and that it will be best for brewers to prepare for all eventualities.” In fact, the hopping rates for beers overall continued to drop throughout all of the 20th century, a trend that was not reversed until 2011.
This didn’t happen because the international brewers who make pale lagers, still easily the most popular type of beer sold, started using more hops. It is a result of far smaller brewers using 10 times or more (sometimes a lot more) hops in each glass of hop-centric beers they make. Of course, new hop varieties—ones inspiring tasting notes that include words like gooseberries, melon, jasmine, passion fruit or bergamot—are part of the equation, but a discussion about the future of hops should not be about what the new flavor of the week might be. New hops that may taste of berries or coconut or even chocolate are already in the pipeline.
The future of hops depends on farmers, and their success hangs on agronomy. They are focused on what varieties will yield, how disease-resistant they are, and other characteristics that determine how desirable they are to grow. To meet projected 2020 demand, farmers will need to invest a half-billion dollars in land and infrastructure. Most of the growers in the American Northwest are the children or grandchildren of farmers and know the boom and bust cycle well enough to be careful betting on the future and projected demand. The number of farms in the region shrunk by more than 40 percent between 1997 and 2007, and there were only the tiniest of commercial farms elsewhere in the country.
Farmers in the Northwest have already added more than 21,000 acres (70 percent) in the past five years, and outside the region hundreds of newly minted hop farmers planted thousands of new acres of hops in only a few years. Some have plans to sell their hops around the globe; others are counting on new interest in locally grown ingredients. Times are booming, which historically has meant one thing. “There’s a trail of tears after every one [hop boom],” says
Eric Desmarais, a third-generation farmer who went into the family business at CLS Farms despite his parents’ objections.
The future of hops is not in danger, but it is uncertain, because fashion always comes with a price. —Stan Hieronymus
Editor’s Note: This story is part of a special section on the future of beer, which appears in the March 2017 issue of All About Beer Magazine. This article contains sections on the future of water, malt, hops and yeast.