Hopping along

Hopping along

There’s been a recent media blitz about an apparent global hops crisis. Due to such factors as bad weather in Europe and the decreasing production of U.S. hops thanks to government subsidies for other crops such as corn (particularly with the current focus on making corn-based ethanol as an alternative fuel), hops—the ingredient that lends bitterness and spice to beer—is in seriously short supply. Now, if you’re a fan of cheap swill from the likes of Anheuser-Busch and Coors, you probably have little reason to worry. The big beer companies have long-term futures contracts with hops growers and suppliers (meaning they’ve already arranged for hops deliveries way into the future at set prices). Plus, the macrobrews don’t use much hops in their watered-down, mass-produced slosh, anyway.  It’s really only the good, flavorful stuff—the ales, porters, IPAs and other handcrafted microbrews—that are most affected by the lack of supply and correspondingly higher price of hops. Just how are our local microbrewers and restaurateurs weathering this storm?  We checked in with master brewers Jacques Landry of South Street Brewery and Taylor Smack of Blue Mountain Brewery for their perspectives. What we discovered is that the hops “crisis” may be a red herring and the real problem, an underreported bust-up in the barley market.

Of his hops supply, Landry says, “We’re in pretty good shape—I’m basically good through next year.”

Handling it: Jacques Landry of South Street Brewery isn’t hurting from the short supply of hops—for now. “I’m basically good through next year,” he says.

Like most other small-batch beer crafters, Landry purchases his hops from Hopunions, a distributor that procures a variety of hops from growers around the world.

“One positive thing that’s happened from the limited supply is that it’s encouraged me to branch out and use some varietals I haven’t used before,” says Landry.

Smack similarly has been forced to use new varietals, which, like wine grape varietals, lend different flavors, textures and aromas to different types of beers.

“I haven’t been able to get all the varietals I want, but it hasn’t been a huge problem,” he says. Having opened Blue Mountain along with his wife, Mandi Smack, and partner, Matt Nucci, just this past October (well after the hops doomsday predictions had been made), Smack says, “I created the beers around the hops crisis.” Smack also planted his own crop of the most popular type of hops for U.S. microbrews—Cascade—and says this year’s yield of fresh hops should be enough to share with both South Street and fellow local brewer Starr Hill. By next year, he says up to 30 to 40 percent of Blue Mountain’s hops needs could be covered by its own crop.

But what about the price? As it turns out, so little hops is used in a batch of beer that the increase in costs hasn’t yet trickled down to consumers. For example, Landry is now paying $32 a pound for a varietal he used to get for $4.50, but since only about one to five pounds of hops are needed for every 250 to 500 gallons of South Street’s beer, “It really doesn’t carry through to the price of a pint,” says Landry.

What Landry and Smack say will affect consumers in the coming months and years, however, is the decreasing supply and increasing cost of barley malt—a major component of beer. In fact, Landry was scheduled to meet with his malt supplier just after speaking with Restaurantarama, and it had him nervous. As Smack explains, a drought in Australia and those dang U.S. government subsidies encouraging U.S. farmers to plant corn instead other of grains has the price of barley expected to double in the near future, and that, most definitely, will impact the price of beer pretty quickly.

“Six-packs will go up at least a buck or two pretty soon,” Smack says.

Maybe it’s time to for us beer lovers to lay off our cars and call our congresspeople.

Quick bites

Now that a CVS-pharmacy is set to kick Just Curry out of its Corner location behind Satellite Ballroom, owner Alex George tells us he’s about to move to another, much bigger Corner location. More on that story to come. 

Got some restaurant scoop? Send tips to restaurantarama@c-ville.com or call 817-2749, Ext. 48.

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