The 2014 harvest is only a few weeks away.  Already we know that there will not be enough of some the most popular proprietary hop varieties … again. The problem is not that more of them can’t be grown. The problem is also not that growers don’t want to grow more. Prices aren’t an issue because some of the most popular aroma varieties can command a very healthy price and brewers seem willing to pay those prices, no questions asked.  Production of the most popular proprietary aroma varieties is limited intentionally by the people who own the rights to those varieties.  It’s not limited with the intention of driving up price.  It’s limited because they don’t want to make those varieties available to the industry at large and they can’t handle all the production necessary.  Instead they try to tightly control production and/or sales through specific companies.  Public varieties, which are available to anybody who wants to grow and/or sell them, don’t have this problem. Unless the situation with availability to freely grow proprietary varieties changes, the availability of those proprietary varieties to brewers is not likely to improve. Why would somebody commit such a heinous crime you may ask? The interests of the brewing or hops industries as a whole are not among the reasons.
The hop industry is small and a lot of the players are closely related.  There are old families that have been in the industry 100 years … think Godfather without the olive oil.  There are also groups of growers who cooperate together and against other groups to try to advance their own agenda … again, think Godfather, but without the fancy suits and machine guns.  Some families’ arms reach far and wide and their fingers are in a lot of pies.  
I mention this because usually there aren’t too many degrees of separation between the grower, the breeder and the merchant company selling the hops. In some cases, they’re one in the same. That can be good and bad.  When supply is kept lower than demand though … that’s bad.  This is done by merchants to try to lure brewers into the web of a merchant company so they can lock in customers they may not otherwise be able to get or keep.  I guess that’s their competitive advantage … and, as they say, business is business.  Fair enough.  That’s a pretty douchey move, and risky in an age when social media enables people to share their thoughts so easily.  It’s a move that has played well during the previous 10 years, but it won’t play well during the next 10.  The demand for those varieties won’t last forever as more new varieties are created every year by many different players diluting the popularity for any one in particular.  Brewers will be drawn toward new and different attainable varieties when they can’t get the varieties they want.  We’ve seen that happen first hand.  To use an agricultural analogy … “you have to make hay while the sun is shining”.  The owners of some proprietary varieties are missing the chance to maximize sales, and therefore revenue, by limiting production and sales outlets.  To put all your eggs in one hop basket and assume that will keep working indefinitely, is short sided to say the least.
Unfortunately, the same companies in control of the most elusive proprietary varieties don’t seem to understand or can’t handle the growth currently happening in the industry and definitely don’t understand the scope of the demand for the great varieties they have created. That is why those varieties are in short supply today.  You can imagine the varieties I’m talking about and you probably can guess the companies involved so I won’t mention them here. If the people in question believed in a free market, where any growers could buy and produce proprietary varieties for a royalty fee and sell them to whomever they choose, instead of trying to hoard sales for themselves and control it, we would not be seeing variety shortages today. To be fair there are a couple companies selling proprietary varieties in the way we’ve suggested.  It works and there are no shortages of those varieties.  The variety shortages we have today are evidence of a very top down strategy, something that might fit nicely in North Korea.  After the fall of the Communism in the Soviet Union, however, I think most people understand that central planning doesn’t work very well.
The creators of proprietary varieties should be well compensated and praised for all their hard work to create such amazing varieties for the market.  It’s an expensive, time consuming and risky job with no promise of any return on the initial investment.  Ironically the creators of the most popular varieties should be criticized, however, for their management of bringing those varieties to market.  They are not allowing the demand for the amazing hop varieties they have created to be filled.  Maybe they’re afraid to share the benefits of their creations with anybody else.  Maybe they really just don’t care about shorting the market.  That could all be fixed by allowing any growers who wants to grow proprietary varieties to buy the roots and pay a royalty fee for the variety in question, which, ironically, would make them more money.  They could easily pass along the cost of a reasonable royalty to their customers, whether they are grower direct sales, or through other merchants.
I’m sure if enough of you would like to see more proprietary varieties on the market we can make a difference!!  Do you think proprietary varieties should be more widely available for anybody?  I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts and comments on twitter and add #freethehops so we can all participate … or share the link to this blog article to spread the word. 
Stay tuned for another post with a crop report by the end of the month.  

Bob Dylan, Some Math and … The End of Craft Beer?

There has been a lot of talk lately in the media about crazy hop prices and the end of Craft Beer in the United States. Some have picked out the most sensational details and left out 90% of the story. One national news outlet did so little research they used a handful of grain in the picture accompanying the article when talking about hops. Maybe you saw that one! The fact is that hop price increases hardly mean the end of craft beer.  Hop prices have to increase to keep pace with demand because growers need to add more production capacity. We thought somebody should do the math to hopefully put an end to some of the hop hype and paranoia that seems to be so contagious lately.

WARNING: If you don’t like math, skip the MATH section.

Not many people like to do math for fun, so let’s keep this part short.  We know first hand that some brewers use as many as four pounds per barrel.  There are probably some brewers out there that use even more. Let’s assume 4 pounds per barrel. The Brewers Association says it’s more like 1.5lbs. per barrel so we’re intentionally aiming high. Next, let’s assume a hop price of $10/lb.  That’s much higher than most varieties today, but still a bit less than the scarcest varieties. We’ll use it to show how absurd the hype is about hop prices killing the craft trend. There are two kegs per barrel. Let’s assume a very realistic 100 pints of beer per keg (the actual number is more like 124 if you don’t spill any). At the pub, people pay $4-5/pint. Let’s use $4. This means $800 revenue at the pub per barrel.
So … There are $40 worth of hops that goes into that beer that generates $800 at the pub. IF hop prices double from the $10/lb. we mentioned above to $20/lb., that would mean there’s $80 of hops in that same barrel of beer. IF that entire cost gets passed along every step so the consumer pays the full price of the increase that’s an extra $0.20 per pint of beer at the bar. That’s an increase of 5%.Granted that’s more than reported US inflation. It’s not something that will bring about the Armageddon in the Craft Beer world though!  Granted, the brewery or the bar could charge more of a markup along the way, but $0.20 is probably still a reasonable number to use if hop prices reach $20/lb. Even if you double that number and make it a $0.40 per pint increase, which would mean a 10% increase, it’s not that much.  Of course the numbers for bottles or growlers will be different, but this is a good place to start. 
Bruce Willis, tell the team to stand down … We don’t need you just yet. In June of this year, Starbucks raised the price of their coffee by 9% in response to higher coffee prices from farmers around the world due to short supply.  Sounds very similar to what we’re facing in the hop industry!  I don’t recall reading articles suggesting the end of coffee in the past month or so. Have you visited Starbucks any less often during the last 6 weeks because of their price increases? The truth is that the increase in hop prices, just like the increase in coffee prices, is really not so strong as to bring an end to the craft beer trend in the US so long as the quality of the beer we’re drinking stays high.
If paying an extra $0.20-$0.40, or 5-10% more for a beer stops the craft beer trend currently underway, then it’s not a very sustainable trend in the first place and we should all go back to the drinking those watery lite beers your father enjoyed with the big horses pulling sleighs and the pretty mountains in the ads. Even those guys know that’s not going to happen, which is why they’re buying up craft breweries whenever they can.  
Prices of most everything increases with time. Computers are the obvious example to the contrary. In the hop industry, it may seem prices are increasing quickly. They’re not. Prices have been held back, lower than they should be, for a long time. Prices have been subsidized at low levels during times of surplus by grower and merchant equity built up during previous shortages and the high prices that came with them.  The industry invested then so they could produce now. The infrastructure they invested in though is about full.  Prices are rising from the suppressed levels at which they were trapped during times of surplus production capacity to where they really need to be to sustain the industry.  Growers are starting to understand where prices need to be to really cover the cost of expansion and production. This is the first time without an acute shortage that a fair price has been paid for hops . . . EVER
The way the hop market typically works is as follows:  The time when there is demand for hops and prices are high finances the development necessary to get through the times when there is less demand. Usually prices skyrocket during times of shortage in a matter of weeks and then plummet shortly thereafter. This new sustainable demand caused by increasing demand for craft beer and aroma hops is causing a slow and steady increase in prices. Unfortunately, that’s how the hop market works. For the most part, growers and merchants are not gouging. Everybody is being cautious. Everybody in the industry is trying to manage a growing demand and the cash necessary to finance very expensive infrastructure without being caught overextended in case the music stops … like in musical chairs.  From the outside, it may seem like a broken system, but it is working, just like Adam Smith said it should.  
A hop price increase to sustainable levels is actually a good thing. It will enable commercial hop growers to continue producing the quality hops that brewers need to make all the great beers we love so much.  If we really enjoy them, it’s a good idea if the prices for all the ingredients are sustainable so we can keep the wheels on the bus and enjoy the ride for a while to come.  Some of those same big guys I mentioned earlier unfortunately don’t think that way, which is why hops have been so cheap for so long. As Dylan said back in 64, “The Times, They Are A-Changin’”
Prices won’t continue to rise forever. As I mentioned, hop prices have to increase now to keep pace with the growing craft industry, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to keep increasing.  Imagine it like a set of stairs.  Hops prices need to take a big step up to support the level to which the industry must grow. All the baby steps have been taken or are being taken now. It’s come to the point where a big step is necessary. That additional capacity will handle a LOT more hop demand, probably enough for the craft beer industry to reach the 20% of US beer sales that everybody likes to talk about.  That’s the hundreds of millions of dollars in investment we referenced in our earlier post:

Greedy Growers and Dirty Dealers

Once the industry gets to that new level of potential production capacity, prices for contracted hops should be relatively stable for a long time.