Brewers Dylan Mosley and Mike Bianco pose for a picture in a rare photo op.
Hops. Right now you can't even have a conversation about Rihanna's new tattoo without Hops coming up. Hops are the Poster Child of Beer. But what the heck are they? Well, they are a flower of sorts and they grow on a vine. They are totally kicking Honeysuckle, Clematis, Wisteria, Kiwi, and Trumpet Vines butts at re-defining Craft Brewing. I guess some vines try harder than others.
Hop vines grow from a Rhizome which is a stem that you bury a few inches under the ground and then realize three years later that you should have planted only two because those suckers grow fast and spread all over your garage. The vines produce a cone, or flower, that looks like a little papery pine-cone with yellow pixie dust on it. This little thingy is why you can melt the inside of your mouth with a +100IBU beer and blog about it.
Now I'm not going to go into the botany of hops right now, mostly because I'd be retyping a wikipedia entry and partly because the point of this blog is something different.... We're going to talk about Hops as a commodity. Whoa. I can tell you are already enthralled.....
Hops are like any other farm produce - its planted and harvested according to supply and demand. It takes about 3 years for a hop vine to really become mature which is about 32 years faster than me. Once again, this vine is really ahead of the curve. It used to be that big commercial brewers commanded pretty much all the hops on the market and there wasn't really much point in growing anything that they didn't want. Nowadays that's totally defunct. The Craft Beer market is directly responsible for many hop farms and are sometimes even doing their own growing. Any brewer who doesn't own a hop farm for their own purposes buys hops either directly from farmers they've worked deals with, brokers, or other distributers who act as material suppliers. Since hops are typically harvested once a year breweries plan ahead and purchase hops either as a yearly contracted amount or play the spot market game which is purchasing the overage from contract farms as the supply is available.
We've played the spot market this past year since we were still trying to figure out how much we would use and of what types of hops. Now that we are rolling into production work, a yearly contract for our hops makes total sense.
The past few years, and this one for sure, has seen a marked increase in the number of Craft Brewers out there and has had many consequences for Hop availability. Centennial? Can't get them. Simcoe? Nope. Citra? Chinook? Amarillo? See Centennial and Simcoe. These hops are scarce for one reason- the acreage planted isn't enough for the current demand. And the demand is HIGH! I've seen insane numbers floated past breweries looking to sell them and the very Hops that were instrumental in building America's Craft Brew Scene are practically given away. Well, not really, but its kinda the difference between paying for Tenderloin or Chuck. Another obvious reason that the hop market is volatile is that some years the harvest wanes due to any number of natural impacts.
These are all issues that impact any new brewery and the next couple of years will be interesting especially as new hops are bred and the craft focus shifts from hop to hop. At The Civil Life we really put a lot of thought into our Hop Program from a ‘balance’ perspective. We talk about ‘balance’ quite a bit, but ultimately I think a better word is ‘compliment’, as sometimes the Hop note either becomes very obvious or the Beer is very driven by Malt. Our Scottish Ale is a good one to talk about here- for the style it really is very hoppy but ultimately I think the hops are saying “hey, I really like hanging out with you Malt, lets go shoot some pool”. I think highly of all of our ingredients and I really don’t want one to beat up on the others. The simple fact is that its difficult to make an enjoyable beer that uses one ingredient as a crutch. Can’t we all just get along?
Lastly, as this post is about ‘commodity’, there is the economic impact of Hops. Depending on what type you are using and in what quantity they can be a hugely expensive portion of your recipe. We are malt-driven at the Civil Life and that does help us keep the costs of Hops in balance. One of the great things about beer is having that second beer, so we also try to build beers that invite you, our casual reader to reach for another. As you reach for another beer, you increase the economic impact of this brewery and to that we are thankful.
Dylan Mosley is the Civil Life’s Brewer. He is also responsible for changing out the pirate flag every 8 months. His annual compensation package here is directly related to the amount of time his beard is a minimum of two inches long.