Expired: Hops - It's a Beer Lover's Nightmare

Expired: Hops – It’s a Beer Lover’s Nightmare

Anyone who drinks beer probably felt nervous in 2007. A hops shortage was announced, and home brewers–not to mention long-standing professional breweries–began to sweat.

Although the shortage today is not as bad as it was five years ago, hops—the primary ingredient in beer that stabilizes its flavor and gives it that sometimes-bitter aftertaste–are still hard to come by. Without them, our favorite brews would be tasteless and odorless, and as a result, not even remotely worth the calories.

The first known use of the hop plant dates back to 736 A.D. in Germany, the world’s number one hop-growing country. Before the shortage was announced in 2007, hop growers in both Germany and the United States (specifically in Yakima, Washington) weren’t making any money off of their beloved crops. As a result, farmers dropped out of the market, switched crops or tried to stay afloat and sadly went bankrupt. To make matters worse, in 2006, about 2 million pounds of hops (about four percent of the U.S. hop crop) were destroyed in an S.S. Steiner warehouse in Yakima.

Statistically, the hop-growing business has seen better days. Let’s put it this way: In the United States alone, circa 1950, there were an estimated 515 hop growers. In the year 2000, after just five decades, a sixth of that number remained, leaving seventy-five growers. In 2008, only forty-five were left. But while hop growers are on the decline, beer sales are on the rise–and are growing by about 1-2 percent annually worldwide. The craft brewing industry alone is growing by 12 percent annually. Those promising percentages for the beer industry have inspired a few hop growers to return to their fields, but they still aren’t growing enough hops to appease the beer-making (and drinking) masses.

Today, if you’re a professional brewer, you won’t get any hops unless you contract your hop order out ahead of time, months before the harvest. If you wait too long, you won’t have any hops to brew with. And because so many professional brewers frantically snatch up all the hops before they’re even grown, many home brewers are left to brew hop-less beer.

Thankfully, beer drinkers and brewers alike have some hope: the worldwide hops supply seems to be growing greater as the years go on. But only time will tell if the popularity of craft beer—and our ability (okay, need) to keep drinking it–will help save this necessary crop.

Photo provided by Beer Utopia.