Small Brewers Turn To Hop Farming

Worldwide shortage of hops has small brewers worried they might not find enough hops to produce their standard beers, let alone experiment with new ones.

CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) -- Most brewers of craft and specialty beers say they got into the business because they wanted to produce what the big corporate brewers weren't: artisan brews with a unique flavor.

Now, some of those small-time brewers are finding they may have to grow a beermaker's crucial ingredient -- the flavorful hops that give beer its tang and bite.

For the second straight year, a worldwide shortage of hops has small brewers worried they might not find enough hops to produce their standard beers, let alone experiment with new ones. Many are planting hops themselves to ensure an adequate supply at a price they can afford.

"With the price spike for hops, everybody figures they're going to grow their own and become small-scale hop growers," said Dave Wills of Freshops, a commercial supplier of hops and hop plants in nearby Philomath, who has seen a 300 percent increase in orders this year.

One-fourth of the world's hops are grown in the United States, largely in the Pacific Northwest. But a decade-long oversupply forced many farmers to abandon the crop. Acreage fell 30 percent between 1995 and 2006, when stocked warehouses finally emptied. Meanwhile, the number of microbreweries rose.

Beer behemoths can hedge against rising prices and negotiate better, longer-term contracts for ingredients with the farmers who grow them. Smaller companies generally get whatever is left, usually buying hops on the spot market.

Small brewers often change the varieties of hops they use as they develop new products, said Ann George, administrator of the Washington Hop Commission. For that reason, she said, "it's much more difficult for craft brewers to project out five years than it would be for the big brewers."

Unfortunately, craft brewers' reliance on the spot market resulted in their being hardest hit by the shortfall, George said.

More small brewers are electing to sign long-term contracts today, said Paul Gatza, director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, a nonprofit trade group. At the same time, small farmers are planting hops in areas where they haven't traditionally been grown, including Maine, South Dakota and Colorado.

Hop growers added nearly 8,000 acres for harvest this year, largely in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, bringing total hop acreage to an estimated 38,145 acres.

Most of those plantings will satisfy the world shortage of bittering hop varieties, which are higher in acid and are preferred by large brewers. Smaller buyers, however, like to differentiate their beers by using varieties that affect aroma more than bitterness.

"There really was not a lot of new aroma hops in the ground, and there won't be until the situation works out where growers can get an equal (price) per acre," Gatza said.

Many small brewers weren't willing to wait for hop farmers to catch up. They're turning to some uncommon sources.

The National Clonal Germplasm Repository is a federally funded gene bank that preserves pear trees, berries, mint, hazelnuts, and yes, hops. It's intended to stockpile wild and uncommon plants to prevent them from going extinct.

The center usually gets about 15 requests each year for the rhizomes, or stem cuttings, of a hop plant. It might send out 150 cuttings in an average year, said Bruce Bartlett, the repository's agricultural research science technician and distribution manager.

This year, the center has had 10 times the number of people interested, requesting cuttings from 600 different hop plants. The repository brought in volunteer gardeners to cut and root 1,000 stem cuttings to meet the demand, but officials are less than thrilled by the interest.

"It's intended for education and research, but for some things you can't find commercially, we're kind of the court of last resort," Bartlett said. "We're not the plant police."

Herb Pluemer, owner of Tractor Brewing Co. in Los Lunas, N.M., bought 10,000 hop stems from Wills' Oregon nursery to try growing the crop himself after hearing how much farmers wanted this year.

"We had to lay out $16,000 for the hops for next year, and now they want the following year upfront and it's just going higher," he said. "I have a lot of land, so I got the idea, why not try hops myself?"

Pluemer is still waiting to see if New Mexico's soil and climate lend themselves to hops. Weeds have been a problem in the early going, and the small crop in the plants' first year was disappointing.

Pluemer won't say what he has spent on the adventure but believes the investment will pay off.

"Next year will be the proof of the pudding," he said. "If they say hops are going to $50 a pound, I'm going to quit the brewery and just grow hops."

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