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I sometimes hear from people who must love conspiracy theories that hop merchants and growers fix prices and that some are in cahoots with one another. The truth is that merchants rarely communicate with one another. Growers get together more often. When anybody in the industry meets, it’s as much about disinformation as information. That’s probably not a good thing. There is a very adversarial relationship in the U.S. hop industry. Fierce competition is part of the reason there is so much division, inefficiency and chaos. That makes it thrilling and unpredictable at the same time.
If a conspiracy existed, a small group of hop merchants could certainly manage the supply side of the industry better than things were managed lately. If merchants and growers would talk more openly to one another it might actually be good for everybody, even the brewers. They could talk about things like varieties brewers are long on. Where are the best and worst hops. Which brewers are paying on time and which brewers aren’t. All sorts other interesting inside baseball that doesn’t fall in the conspiracy camp could be on the table.
The industry is so secretive, however, that it’s surprising if a grower or a merchant mentions the name of a brewer with whom they are working. Some openness would be a good thing. A little transparency could help the market. Communication between merchants alone might have enabled the industry to avoid the situation today where most all of the largest 20 brewers have contracted way too many hops.
So why are merchants not already talking? There are some reasons that come to mind, greed, fear, stubbornness, hatred to name a few. The list goes on. The hop market is typically seen as a zero sum game. When times are bad they are really bad. Most growers and merchants would be happy to see their competitors go out of business. They think if the other guy goes out of business they will have a bigger piece of the pie, which might allow them to dominate the industry.
During the past two months I sent out emails or talked to several merchants. I suggested better and more open communication on the merchant side. Do you know what I heard in response? Sadly … Nothing! I enjoy a good conspiracy theory. I’ve been to Dealey Plaza and the grassy knoll. Honestly, after seeing how a few hop merchants and growers get along, it’s hard to believe in a small group of illuminati controlling the entire world. If merchants and growers are conspiring to anything other than put their competitors out of business, it would be news to me. Maybe it would do the hop industry good to work together and share a little information once in a while. If you want to call that a conspiracy to spice it up a bit, then so be it.