Forget hops, how about some chocolate in your beer?
Robert Esposito never expected he would become a gardener when he started brewing his own beer four years ago.
But in mid-April, he found himself at a friend’s palm tree nursery, soaking a patch of San Diego’s clay-like soil for three days to get it soft enough to break apart with a pickaxe. Then he and two fellow homebrewers spent a weekend building trestles and putting their plants in the ground. And for months to come, they will water and trim their greenery before picking hundreds of flowers that then must be dried out.
This is all to produce, they hope, 30 pounds of hops, the flavoring agent and preservative found in beer, which will allow them to brew about 1,000 gallons.
A worldwide hops shortage hit this year, pushing the price of some hops to more than $25 a pound from about $3. Since then, homebrewers have been forced to get creative--growing their own ingredients and experimenting with new recipes--to keep up their hobby.
“People who have been brewing the same recipe year after year are saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to try this,’” said Chris Colby, editor of Brew Your Own Magazine. “Rather than emulate a popular classic beer style, they’re trying to brew beverages by what they see in their mind’s eye, or tongue, I should say.”
Many commercial brewers, with regular customers and reputations to uphold, have dealt with the shortage by raising their prices so they can stick to their usual recipes, which require specific types and amounts of hops.
But the nature of homebrewing encourages experimentation, so these mavericks are using everything from chocolate and coffee to vanilla beans and heather to flavor their beer.
Experts say multiple factors have led to the hops shortage: Bad weather in Europe has impaired the growing season; demand has spiked as beer becomes popular in emerging markets like China; and some farmers are using their acreage to grow other crops. In addition, barley, another key ingredient in beer, is getting more expensive.
This has led to what Chris Graham, the owner of MoreFlavor!, a California-based supplier of make-your-own beer, wine and coffee products, described as an “ugly, perfect storm” for prices.
“There are four ingredients in beer and two of them are being hit really hard,” Graham said. (Water and yeast are also needed in the brewing process.)
The contingent most affected by the shortage is the homebrewing shops, which are “the last rung of the ladder when it comes to supply,” explained Alex Hall, who runs the beer resource Web sites Gotham Imbiber and Cask Ale.
“The first choice goes to big breweries who have signed contracts” with growers years in advance, Hall said. “The small guy really gets left out.”
Because an average five-gallon batch of beer requires only a couple of ounces of hops, the price increase on the overall cost of brewing has not been all that substantial, some brewers say. But what has troubled them more than rising costs is the lack of variety of hops.
Colby of Brew Your Own magazine said last year homebrewers had access to about 60 to 70 varieties of hops between their local shop and ordering online. Now stores have half the selection.
In anticipation of the shortage, some homebrewers tried to buy enough hops to fill their needs for a year. Brian Knobf, owner of the Cellar Homebrew store in Seattle, said he received an online order for $1,500 worth of hops with the client even offering to pay double. Meanwhile, some brew stores have rationed what they sell their customers to prevent hoarding.
So some like Esposito are testing their green thumbs. In Maryland, Bob Frank, the owner of the supply store and brew-on-premise Flying Barrel, said more than half of the 100 or so members of his local brew club are growing hops. Some are even thinking about selling it commercially. And at the Hop Shop in Gray, Maine, owner Ed McDowell said, “I’ve never sold out of hops roots, but they’re selling like hot cakes.”
And other brewers are trying to get away from hops altogether. Experts expect to see fewer beers heavy in hops, such as Imperial India pale ales. Knobf, for one, predicts Belgian Wit beer will gain in popularity, as it requires few hops, instead relying on alternate flavoring agents such as coriander and orange peel.
To encourage creativity, the Washington, D.C., area-based Brewers United for Real Potables (BURP) is holding a “Hop Embargo Challenge,” where members must use spices, like heather, juniper berries and mandrake, that were common in brewing before hops became standard.
Some brewers are even looking to the Middle Ages for guidance. Mugwort, used centuries ago to flavor beer, is experiencing a resurgence.
With all this resourcefulness, most supply shops and homebrewers don’t think the price increase will deter people from taking up the hobby. In fact, because of the rising cost of commercial beers, they expect interest to continue to grow, which since 2005 has led the American Homebrewers Association to see a 62 percent increase in membership to about 16,000 members.
Not everyone is so optimistic, however. Graham at MoreFlavor! said that after 12 years of growth, his sales are falling. And he said he has even heard of smaller homebrew stores that are considering closing their doors.
Still, Graham says he is glad be pushed to go out on a limb with his own brewing.
“It’s just an opportunity to try something new,” he said.