Ohio Craft Brewers Face Potential Hops Shortage

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Talk to a microbrewer about hop varieties and you could be there a while. Remember Forrest Gump? There are 120 hop varieties worldwide. And craft brewers love their hops. 

“There’s this big race to see who can put the most hops into a beer.”

Eric Bean is Columbus Brewing Company’s brewmaster. On this morning, Columbus Brewing Company is bottling their IPA.

Bean expects to use about 25,000 pounds of hops this year for beers like IPAs. Next year he plans on 40,000 pounds of hops.

“We’ve built all of our recipes around specific hops which sometimes is very scary.”

Scary because craft brewers are guzzling the country’s hops inventory.

Microbrews account for just 8 percent of the overall beer market in the U.S., but their beers contain about four times the hops as the average American lager. 

A National Brewers Association expert estimates Ohio microbreweries generates between $250 – $300 million in annual revenue, and that’s expected to increase. The number of permits the state issued to craft brewers since 2009 has more than doubled to 107.

But hops prices are increasing, and there’s an uncertainty about the supply that comes from a limited number of regions around the world.

Mercer County farmer Andy Pax is trying to change that, at least in Ohio.

“There’s a big learning curve. There’s a lot of labor.”

Hops were farmed in Ohio until about 100 years ago when pests wiped them out, conveniently in time for prohibition. Now the bulk of the country’s hops come from the Pacific Northwest. 

Pax started growing hops about six years ago and says it’s slow going. He’s encountered some mildew issues, and production levels are low; but he has already sold some hops to some small breweries.

“Most of the microbreweries, they are more or less, I don’t want to say forced, but they sign a contract with the big growers out of state, so they need to tell the growers out there what their needs are for the next three years.”

Having a local option could help them.

Alan Szuter co-owns Wolf’s Ridge Brewing in Downtown Columbus. When the gastropub opened last fall, Szuter says he didn’t have any contracts. They had to get, well, crafty.

“We’ve been able to get the hops that we need from the spot market. We’ve also been somewhat creative in the use of hops…using some non-proprietary experimental hops.”

Since then, Szuter says he’s established some contracts which give him some confidence in an unclear hops market.

“In general, I’m not that concerned about it. Now that’s assuming that they’ll be able to fulfill the contracts. They may be writing contracts they’re not able to fulfill.”

Craft brewers Szuter, Eric Bean and Seventh Son Brewing co-owner Collin Castore all say they would welcome locally-grown hops provided they’re high quality.

But before that can happen, Castore says Ohio hops farmers have to be able to process hops into pellet form, a preference among many brewers.

“Somebody needs to invest in a pelletizing facility. And then all these farmers could bring their hops to that facility and…then people could really get the full use out of them.”

Hops farmer Pax says that’s one of his goals.

“I would love to see the infrastructure developed…where a small farmer would be able to send it…to a small processing center…kind of like a grain mill.”

Back at the Columbus Brewing Company, Eric Bean considers the hops market as the country’s beer giants ramp up production now that the economy has stabilized.

“Those guys are going to want their hops again, and they have the buying power to be able to have access to what we’re buying right now.”

The irony of this situation isn’t lost on anyone. The recent success for microbrewers helped create the potential shortage with their massive hops usage.

“It’s very concerning. [But] there’s a lot smarter people working on the problem than myself. I think we’re going to find some solutions, but it’s also going to take a lot of creativity for our industry to deal with how to get continued access to a crop that’s not so easy to grow.”