Aromatic varieties of hops have unique aroma profiles. Amarillo provides beers with a strong citrus note; Simcoe, a zesty bitter-grapefruit character. Centennial hops are floral and piney. But other types are more highly sought by the big beer companies, and thus they’re a safer bet and an easier sell for growers. Even some relatively common varieties, though, are currently unavailable for microbrewers. For example, Coronado Brewing Company recently placed an order with a U.S. grower for Willamette hops, a moderately acidic aromatic type, and was told that the 2008 crop had already been sold.
“Apparently Budweiser uses Willamette, and they jumped in early and bought every last bit of it,” said Coronado head brewer Shawn DeWitt. “There’s none left. Nothing. Budweiser even offered to buy the entire stock of hops from Hopunion, and thank goodness [owner] Ralph Olsen told Budweiser, ‘No. We won’t screw the craft brewers like that.’ ”
Even with allies on the supply end, Kirk McHale may have no hops on hand when Breakwater Brewing opens in May, but as he renovates his location and installs fermenting equipment, he’s got a backup plan.
“We’re thinking of going into a lot of herbs and honey, things like dandelion, hibiscus, and yarrow to bitter the beer. We want to make mead too. That would require a vintner license, and we’re applying for that right now.”
Beer makers and hop suppliers say that in two to three years the young vines now being planted will bear their first sizeable crops, bringing an end to the shortage. Wholesale prices should then drop, and brewing an Imperial India Pale Ale will no longer require months of planning and logistical considerations. But Yuseff Cherney of Ballast Point, like many of his craft-brewing peers, worries that uncommon hop varieties could vanish.
“If we wind up with just a few varieties of hops, then a lot of beers are going to taste remarkably similar. Craft beer in the beginning was all about different guys making different things. That diversity was what made this business so interesting, and we’re looking at losing all that.”