When you taste a craft beer you really enjoy and then struggle to find it the next time you’re out, you might be tempted to ask: Why don’t they make more of that stuff?
It’s an excellent question. Ask it if you want to drive your favorite brewer crazy.
More often than not, the answer can be traced to the behind-the-scenes competition among breweries to get the best hops. Hops are a key component in almost all of the popular beer styles, especially IPAs and pale ales. There are dozens of varieties, each bringing different flavor and aroma characteristics to beer. Blending several hops in one beer is popular, too.
But with the massive growth of craft breweries in recent years, the demand for hops has spiked and shortages have become a reality. Prices for hops have skyrocketed. A decade ago, a pound of hops sold for around $3. Now, a pound of specialty hops can cost well over $10. (For certain beer styles, more than a pound of hops is required to make around 30 gallons of beer.)
Breweries that have the most clout with hop brokers have already placed their orders up to five years in advance. That means the good stuff is largely tied up, and new breweries are going to have to get in line or get by with other hops, which may not be as flavorful.
This became apparent as I planned to focus this week’s column on Mosaic, a hop variety that came out in 2012 and is hotly coveted, in part because it can make a beer smell so good without overwhelming the palate.
If you keep an eye on new beer releases, you may have noticed that Mosaic is showcased in the name of several popular beers by premier brewers such as Saint Archer and Green Flash. Mosaic is a proprietary hop, meaning it can be produced only by licensed growers. Catherine and Michael Johnson, owners of GoatHouse Brewing in Lincoln, learned that soon after launching their business. Among other things, they grow their own hops.
“They’ll only sell you the hops. You can’t buy the whole plant,” said Catherine, referring to hop brokers. “We’ve tried. We have 20 different varietals, but we can’t grow Mosaics.”
The trademarked hop Mosaic, also known as HBC 369, was developed by Hop Breeding Co. (with farms in the Northwestern U.S.), which also developed the highly regarded Citra hop. It has become a desired ingredient for local brewers. At Knee Deep Brewing in Auburn, the varietal can be found in three of the top-selling beers, all IPAs – Hoparillo, Lapulin River and the newly released Breaking Bud.
“Mosaic definitely adds a tropical fruit note to it,” said Knee Deep’s Jeremy Warren.
“The hop aroma is incredibly powerful,” said A.J. Tendick of West Sacramento’s Bike Dog Brewing, which bottles a pale ale called Mosaic. “You pour one and smell it from 10 feet away. It’s also really aptly named. You can have the same beer two days in a row and you might get a different flavor and aroma. It makes it a lot of fun to drink.”
I noticed via social media that Knee Deep was trying to secure more Mosaic hops and was willing to trade with other breweries.
“We have (hop) contracts, but with the explosion of some of the new brands we developed, we just didn’t have enough (Mosaic),” Warren said. “We have been able to secure enough Mosaic for the rest of the year. I have a few other beers I want to brew with Mosaic, but I’m hesitant because I don’t want to run out.”
I asked Warren about placing his orders with hop brokers – or Mosaic, Citra, Simcoe and other coveted hops.
“We used to contract three years out,” he said. “But now we are contracting out to 2020.”
At tiny but bustling Bike Dog, terrific beer and rapid growth sound like a win-win, but not if you can’t get enough hops. That became a problem when its Mosaic pale ale started selling well in 22-ounce bottles, and Bike Dog had to make a tough call. It stopped brewing its popular session IPA, which also contained Mosaic, so it could continue producing the pale ale.
Now Bike Dog and other emerging breweries have to do the math, look into the crystal ball and place orders for ingredients. Securing the right hops –and enough hops if a new beer takes off – is crucial.
“You have to predict what you’re going to make two years in the future,” Tendick said. “When you’re growing, which a lot of us are, that can be awfully difficult.”
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.