The crisis that can destroy the hop industry

The March 1 Hop Stocks report collected by the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistical Service (USDA NASS) is typically not fully appreciated by anybody and therefore only given a cursory glance. In 2017, however, this is very likely the most significant report you will read until harvest numbers are released. Hidden in the numbers is evidence of a trend, which, if it continues, will turn into a crisis of massive proportions with the potential to forever change and even destroy the hop industry as we know it today. Let’s take a deeper look.

Figure 1: The data from the most recent March 1Hop Stocks report

Figure 2: A graph of the 2007-2017 March 1 Hop Stocks data:

Less than a decade ago, brewers held more stocks than growers and merchants combined. That all changed in 2009 with the growth in popularity of the craft beer industry. Craft brewers clearly love their hops and they don’t mind contracting for them either. At first, that trend seemed to be great news for hop growers everywhere. Unfortunately, the way craft brewers are expressing their love lately has shifted the burden of financing the crop for an additional year before being paid. Some financing is traditionally built into hop prices, but not that much. Two things are troubling about the current trend:

  1. The gap of stocks and who is holding them is widening in the direction of growers and merchants, and
  2. The cost of and risk associated with that gap is growing.  

A quick look back in history reveals the scope of the problem. In March, 2007, growers and merchants held 40% of total stocks. Based on the season average price for the 2007 crop year of $2.99 per pound as reported by the USDA NASS, inventory held by growers and merchants in March 2007 represented approximately $83 million at a time when the entire industry production was valued at just under $180 million. 

Figure 3: A representation of the 2007-2017 March 1 Hop Stock data expressed in percentage of ownership of those stocks.

Fast forward to the most recent hop stocks report from March, 2017. Today, growers and merchants hold 200% more inventory than brewers, which equates to over a year’s worth of inventory. The season average price for 2016 was $5.72 per pound of hops. The increased price compounds the problem facing the industry by drastically increasing the risk associated with holding inventory. The total inventory held by growers and merchants today represents $600 million dollars. That’s represents a 722% increase in the value of stocks growers and merchants finance over the past 10 years alone. You can find the season average price data and do the math for yourself at the Hop Growers of America homepage

Hopefully you can see by now that the USDA March 1 Hop Stocks Reports is much more than a benign report that shows who is storing the inventory regardless of ownership. Typically, inventory does not sit long in the grower or merchant warehouse if the brewer needs it and has paid for it. Some does, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, we can infer from the data not only who is storing the hops, but who needs it, who owns it … and more importantly who has not paid for it

Prices for hops surged over the past decade. Today, the USDA estimates the crop is worth roughly $500 million. According to the Brewers Association, the value of the craft beer industry in 2015 by contrast is $22.3 Billion. The natural question that arises in my mind is … Why is the industry worth $500 million financing the industry that generates over 40 times more revenue?  Something has to change or this will come to a bad end.

Hop prices increased to pay for investments in infrastructure incurred as the hop industry quickly ramped up in response to increased demand by craft brewers. Today’s prices do no cover the added responsibility of providing soft financing for brewers. It seems brewers are using growers and merchants as bankers of last resort. The current risk/reward ratio is not high enough for the hop industry to also act as banker. That is one reason we will see little interest in the short term by growers or brewers to soften prices. If the trend of financing continues, prices in the future will increase. Only once the ratio of stocks returns to a more balanced level, or if bankruptcies are imminent, will prices begin to soften.

Some brewers see the surge in hop stocks and hope prices will crash soon. They don’t understand the consequences of what they are wishing for. Hop prices crashing today will cause chaos in the hop industry. It would lead to countless hop farms going out of business. Say goodbye to creative new varieties. Sustainable business practices will take a back seat. Many of the features craft brewers say they appreciate about the industry today will disappear. Those go away when the money to pay for them goes away. Growers too should realize the seriousness of the situation. They cannot act without impunity. Ultimately neither they nor their neighbors will get paid if they continue to plant additional hops in the current environment. Ironically, it could be the craft brewers’ love for hops and their willingness to contract them that causes a catastrophic failure in the hop industry. 

 

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