San Diego breweries face hops shortage

Pizza Port, Green Flash, Ballast Point worry

Yuseff Cherney says his revered and super-bitter Dorado Double India Pale Ale has become too expensive, if not impossible, to make. Cherney is head brewer at Ballast Point Brewing Company, which has breweries in Linda Vista and Scripps Miramar Ranch. Dorado’s recipe uses six Northwest hops varieties, two of which — Simcoe and Crystal — are growing increasingly rare, with prices climbing in the past year from $6 per pound to $30.

“The amount of hops in a batch of that beer could make several other beers throughout the year,” Cherney says. “You’re talking hundreds of pounds of hops that could be spread over four or five other mainstay products.”

The hop industry has been floundering for years. Worldwide, hop acreage has plummeted from 236,067 acres in 1992 to 113,417 in 2006, and in the United States from 42,266 acres to 29,435. In 1856, the United Kingdom grew 56,000 acres of this bitter blossom. Today, it grows 2400.

Kirk McHale, a brewer formerly of Pizza Port in Carlsbad, is in the process of opening a new brewpub, Breakwater Brewing Company, in Oceanside. “We’re just trying to find hops anywhere so that we can start making beer,” he says. “I’m known for very hoppy beers, and with this shortage, I just can’t do the beers that I want to do. I can still make good beer but not the bitter IPAs that are a part of my repertoire.”

IPA, or India Pale Ale, was created in England in the late 1700s for export to troops in India. High levels of alcohol and hops preserved India Pale Ale during the long sea voyage, during which other beers spoiled in the tropical heat. Today, Imperial India Pale Ales (or Double IPAs) represent the same class of beer but with even more hops and more alcohol. Other “Imperial” beers — Imperial porters, Imperial stouts, Imperial pilsners, Imperial red ales — are all buffed-up versions of classic styles.

As a general rule, mass-produced, lightly flavored, cheaper beers require just one or two “high-alpha” hops varieties, and in relatively small amounts. (High-alpha hops are high in alpha acids, used primarily for making beer bitter.) Most microbrews, though, consist of at least several hops varieties, and these in sometimes huge amounts. Ballast Point’s Dorado, for example, whose international bittering units (IBUs) hover at the higher end of the scale — over 80 — requires 264 pounds of dried hops for a 45-barrel batch. By contrast, Ballast Point’s Yellowtail Pale Ale requires just 18 pounds in a 40-barrel batch. Lighter beers may use even less.

Jeff Bagby, head brewer at Pizza Port in Carlsbad, brews a monster called Hop Suey Double IPA, which is over 10 percent alcohol by volume and over 90 international bittering units. Such heavy, bitter brews are popular in San Diego, says Bagby.

“If a brewery’s IPA or Double IPA isn’t their best-seller, then it’s damn near, especially in this city. We have people who get irate when we don’t have the IPA on tap, and they can’t understand why.”

Bagby says he plans to brew a batch of Hop Suey this year, but the following season, he predicts “things will get hairy.”

High demand and escalating prices are now driving some farmers to replant their land with hops, but this may not benefit small breweries. According to local beer makers, farmers in Washington and Oregon are replanting with the highly acidic high-alpha hops, which large breweries gobble up just as fast as they’ll grow. But craft brewers rely on aromatic varieties, which provide their brews with kaleidoscopes of flavor. Without these varieties, microbrewers may be forced to reduce their beer production, dilute the flavors of their signature brews, or even apply for vintner’s permits.

Many larger brewers have agreements with suppliers that guarantee long-term availability of the hops they need. Microbreweries and brewpubs, however, may not be protected by legal negotiations, and for those just entering the business, times may be especially tough.

Green Flash Brewing Company in Vista makes a hop-heavy India Pale Ale and an even hoppier Imperial IPA. These beers are the brewery’s top-sellers, says brewer Chuck Silva, and so the company planned ahead last year to assure that these mainstays would not have to be compromised in flavor or curtailed in volume in 2008. Moreover, Green Flash was protected by a contract with a supplier for a share of the 2007 autumn hop harvest. But this year, says Silva, growers have been reluctant to make any promises. And what good is a contract, anyway, when farmers don’t deliver? That’s just what happened with Green Flash’s supply of Styrian Golding hops.

“Our grower defaulted on our supplier,” says Silva. “They must have seen a variety that was more profitable.”

According to Marc Worona, national sales director at Brewers Supply Group West, a major supplier of hops to American breweries, there are not enough hops in the world to feed the beer industry. Many hops, he explains, are reduced post-harvest to a liquid extract of the alpha acids. At present, the world’s stockpile of acid extract is short by about 1000 metric tons. This amount, says Worona, corresponds to approximately 60 billion 12-ounce pints of beer.

As a gesture of goodwill to the struggling craft-brewing industry in America, the Boston Beer Company, maker of Samuel Adams, put up 20,000 pounds of its own hops supply for sale to United States microbrewers, according to brewer and founder Jim Koch. The hops, two varieties of European rarities — East Kent Goldings (from the United Kingdom) and Tettnang Tettnanger (from Bavaria) — were to be sold back at cost and were available in 88-pound blocks, though the company limited each microbrewery to a maximum of six blocks, or 528 pounds. Almost 400 microbreweries asked to buy some, and requests were accepted until last Saturday, after which a random drawing was to be held.

Ballast Point, which uses about 20,000 pounds of hops per year, placed a 528-pound order with Samuel Adams. So did Green Flash. Neither brewery was selected in the drawing, although other locals, including Oceanside Ale Works and Pacific Beach Ale House, were winners.

Aromatic varieties of hops have unique aroma profiles. Amarillo provides beers with a strong citrus note; Simcoe, a zesty bitter-grapefruit character. Centennial hops are floral and piney. But other types are more highly sought by the big beer companies, and thus they’re a safer bet and an easier sell for growers. Even some relatively common varieties, though, are currently unavailable for microbrewers. For example, Coronado Brewing Company recently placed an order with a U.S. grower for Willamette hops, a moderately acidic aromatic type, and was told that the 2008 crop had already been sold.

“Apparently Budweiser uses Willamette, and they jumped in early and bought every last bit of it,” said Coronado head brewer Shawn DeWitt. “There’s none left. Nothing. Budweiser even offered to buy the entire stock of hops from Hopunion, and thank goodness [owner] Ralph Olsen told Budweiser, ‘No. We won’t screw the craft brewers like that.’ ”

Even with allies on the supply end, Kirk McHale may have no hops on hand when Breakwater Brewing opens in May, but as he renovates his location and installs fermenting equipment, he’s got a backup plan.

“We’re thinking of going into a lot of herbs and honey, things like dandelion, hibiscus, and yarrow to bitter the beer. We want to make mead too. That would require a vintner license, and we’re applying for that right now.”

Beer makers and hop suppliers say that in two to three years the young vines now being planted will bear their first sizeable crops, bringing an end to the shortage. Wholesale prices should then drop, and brewing an Imperial India Pale Ale will no longer require months of planning and logistical considerations. But Yuseff Cherney of Ballast Point, like many of his craft-brewing peers, worries that uncommon hop varieties could vanish.

“If we wind up with just a few varieties of hops, then a lot of beers are going to taste remarkably similar. Craft beer in the beginning was all about different guys making different things. That diversity was what made this business so interesting, and we’re looking at losing all that.”

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Ralph Olsen seems like a really good guy.

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