A shortage of hops has beer makers and beer drinkers worried

A cold one
A worldwide shortage of hops, and a developing shortage of barley, means drinkers may pay more for their favorite beer soon.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Chris Laumb is brewmaster at McCann's Food and Brew in St. Cloud, a new brew pub that has yet to open. Laumb has all the ingredients he needs to make beer stacked in a storage room in the brew pub's basement.

Laumb was happy to get his hands on dozens of bags of malted barley, and even more happy to get his hands on the hops stored in a freezer next door.

St. Cloud brewer Chris Laumb feels lucky to have the beermaking supplies he needs for the coming year. A worldwide shortage has increased the cost of hops by as much as 400 percent.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Because of a severe shortage of hops worldwide, Laumb says he's lucky to have found a hop distributor to supply him with those important ingredients for the next year.

"If I would've waited another week or so trying to secure my hops for this next year, I would've been out of luck. We would've probably had to go to other breweries and beg," Laumb says.

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Hops are a flower used primarily as a flavoring and stability agent in beer. While hop plants are grown by farmers all around the world in many different varieties, there is no major commercial use for hops other than in beer.

Hops production in Europe in the past few years has been down, so European brewers are buying a lot of hops from the U.S. market. Big American brewers are doing the same. Laumb says what's left over is expensive.

Hop yard
A hopyard in Germany. The hop plant is a vigorous climber, and grows up along strings in a field called a hop garden or hop yard.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

"It's gone from about $5 a pound up to about $20. Even if you could afford it, you can't find a lot of the varieties that you're looking for. It's tough," Laumb says.

Last year, to make one batch of beer with a variety of hops called Cascade, Laumb would have shelled out $75. Now the same amount would cost him $300, if he could find the hops at all.

Laumb and other brewers are also bracing for an increase in the price of barley. A shortage of the grain is looming due to ongoing drought in Australia. It's being made worse because American farmers are growing less barley and more corn to feed hungry ethanol plants.

The increase in the price of ingredients is toughest on small brewers. But brewer Dustin Brau admits paying more for ingredients is better than not being able to buy them at all.

Hop pellets
Some variety of hops that cost $5 a pound last year, now can fetch as much as $20 a pound.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"We look good until mid to late next year. That's when we're going to be nervous," Brau says.

Brau is the brewmaster for Brau Brothers, a family-owned microbrewery in the small town of Lucan in southwestern Minnesota. Brau hopes a better harvest of hops worldwide next fall eases the shortage. But in the meantime, he and his brothers are planning to grow some hops of their own.

"We're looking at establishing about a two-acre hop yard at this point. It's always been something we wanted to do. But because of the shortage, and because we want to insulate ourselves from issues like this, it went from a item on a wish list to somewhat necessity," Brau says.

It'll take time to get the hops established. It could be two or three years before they have a crop they can use. Brau says growing hops could also be a selling point for their beer, like wineries that grow their own grapes.

Malt bags
These bags of malt at McCann's Food and Brew in St. Cloud will make their way into a batch of beer soon. The price of malt is on the way up too, driven by a drought in Australia and fewer acres of barley being grown in the U.S.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Brau says it's not just beer's ingredients that cost more these days -- the shipping, packaging and the price of glass have all gone up as well. Some experts say all that could mean a an across the board beer price hike of 15 to 20 percent in the next year.

Ryan Anderson, who runs the blog MN Beer, says the increase isn't likely to keep beer lovers from buying a six-pack of their favorite.

"That's just something that, as fans and advocates of craft beer, we're just going to have to absorb and continue to enjoy our beer," Anderson says.

What beer connoisseurs like Anderson fear is that the shortage of hops and barley could force some small breweries out of business.

It doesn't look like there's much relief for brewers in the near term either. Beermaking ingredients are expected to be in short supply until farmers across the world are able to grow more hops and barley, and that could take two or three years.