Now is the time of year when hop growers and merchants are digging roots and planting new hop fields. The past few years brought with them the longest running bull market in the hop industry. That market created strengths and weaknesses in a lot of companies. Unfortunately, that type of money facilitates a lot of careless mistakes and can hide fatal flaws. Brewers, merchants and growers were all shocked when the increase in craft beer sales slowed so drastically in 2016. Most people anticipated the market would continue on its run through 2020 or longer. Many planned accordingly. Obviously, that was not the case. It was confirmation bias at its finest. If you’re a brewer or a hop merchant, of course you want to know which companies will be around for the long term, and which won’t … but how can you know?
If everyone thinks one way, it’s likely to be wrong.
– Jim Rogers
The abrupt slowdown of craft sales slowed the flow of money into the hop industry. That caused a wave of contract renegotiations with merchants, but very few at the grower level. Through it all, the worst pain most growers felt was not being able to sell their spot hops. Despite the fact that the talk in the industry is about the craft slowdown, some hop companies are still expanding. They claim their plans are already in motion and cannot be stopped. Expanding in the face of a drastic slowdown … That doesn’t make any sense … or does it? Actually, it makes perfect sense. It’s a tell! You might think the strong companies are expanding because it takes capital to expand or because there is strong demand. The truth is counterintuitive. The companies expanding “because they have to” are very likely the weakest companies. They lack the financial strength to do anything but chase growth and sales on their books. They lack options. Growth looks great on paper and investors expect to see that.
I am sure you are thinking to yourself … “The craft market is still growing, albeit at a slower rate. There’s got to be some legitimate demand out there for new hops?” That’s true. Based on the rate of payment and deliveries to breweries in 2016, however, the overall market appears to be extremely well supplied from the 2016 crop. The USDA collects statistics on hop stocks. They are collecting them now, in fact. The report will likely depict an increase in brewer and merchant stocks over last year. Statistically, that is how the slowdown manifests itself. Still, there are no reports of growers removing acreage. We expect a net increase in production in 2017 over crop year 2016. That is a net increase that is very likely not necessary. So why is it happening?
Strong merchants and growers are pausing now to see what comes next. The industry is nearing a tipping point and they realize it. There’s no incentive to get caught heading in the wrong direction unless you don’t have anything to lose. The weakest companies, on the other hand, aren’t concerned with the long-term effects of their decisions. If they don’t get through the short-term, there is no long-term for them. They lack options. For sure, they can get lucky and survive the next year or two.
Sometimes, the difference between surplus and shortage can be just one bad crop away. That’s the case in 2017. The weakest players can capitalize on that misfortune and potentially make a fortune … or not if there’s a bumper crop. It’s pretty rough when your best chance of making money in your chosen field comes only after a crop failure.