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Brew me up a pint

Don Wyatt, owner of the Hood Canal Brewery, stands in front of his tasting room wearing casual open-toed sandals, jeans and an Aloha shirt covered in hops blooms. It seems ironic, as lately these plants are hard to come by and partly to blame for unraveling the once-collectively cool manner of local microbreweries.

In the past six months both Wyatt and Don Spencer, owner of Silverdale’s Silver City Brewery, watched as the price of hops rose due to a worldwide shortage and sent many smaller breweries into a panic.

The price increase on hops is “about 60 percent, assuming you can get any,” Wyatt said.

Competition in acquiring the coveted hops is a world wide issue. With more than 80 microbreweries like Hood Canal and Silver City in Washington state alone, fear is a-brewin’ for the future production of everything from ales to lagers in the Northwest.

Problem

While hops crops in Europe and Australia were caught in a drought or consumed by blight, Northwest breweries seemed lucky as nearby Yakima is a prime exporter of the plant.

Of the total 32,000 acres used in the United States to grow hops in 2007, 78 percent (25,000) were located in Yakima, said Ralph Olson, owner of Hop Union, a Yakima hop distribution company.

However, this is no well-kept secret. Breweries worldwide, used to getting hops in Europe or Australia, are now competing to buy what is available out of Yakima.

And with the Euro dominating market prices, small breweries are getting shortchanged.

“Their killing us with the Euro, our dollar is so weak,” said Spencer.

The crazy weather patterns aren’t the sole contributor to the problem, Olson said.

The issue took root 10 years ago when farmers stopped using their land to grow hops crops, Olson said. Farmers realized they profited more from growing crops such as apple trees, grapes or corn for ethanol products.

“There were just too many people growing hops at one time that it created a huge surplus.” Olson said. “ It’s all about supply and demand. Back in 1995 there were more than 236,000 acres used (worldwide) to grow hops but now there are only 118,000.”

When Olson first got into the business in 1978, there were more than 225 hops growers in the United States Now, Olson said, there are less than 60.

The harvesting season for hops takes place September through October each year. But this year the surplus ran dry between the time they were picked during the harvest season and processed in January.

Normally, Wyatt said, breweries could order hops or grain from distributers such as the Hops Union, when needed. However, this year breweries needed to sign contracts in advance for their production requirements.

“It saved my bacon,” Wyatt said. “I keep making all my beers. I’ve been lucky.”

For those breweries without contracts it’s tough to get any hops.

“It’s at the point where breweries are selling to other breweries just to survive” said Wyatt, who experienced this himself selling what little hops surplus he had to Elkhead, a microbrewery located in Buckley.

Wyatt remembers looking at his pile of hops in his cooler back in January and thinking to himself, “I don’t know if I can make it.”

But he has so far.

“Thank goodness I added on 10 percent for extra slack from the year before,” Wyatt said. “I needed every bit of it.”

Spencer said Silver City Brewery has definitely taken a hit but, fortunately, he planned ahead.

“We contracted with suppliers who are reliable,” Spencer said. “We are taken care of through the next two years.”

Spencer said that overall ingredient costs of hops and barley have gone up a total of 200 percent but they are not changing recipes or skimping on product.

“We are sticking to our guns,” Spencer said. “We are quality-oriented — just paying more for it.”

Both Wyatt and Spencer refuse to improvise their recipes in efforts to save some change.

“People expect a certain taste with every beer, they notice,” Wyatt said.

Home brewing operations going strong

Home beer brewing in the North End is actually gaining in popularity. Even as hops prices increase at brewing supply stores, locals compete for their share in the short supply.

Bill Sproules, owner of Olympic Brewing Supply in Bremerton, said his clientele has tripled in the past three months.

“We are busier than we have ever been,” said Sproules. “We expected just the opposite but that just hasn’t happened yet.”

“Brewing comes and goes,” Sproules said. “In a good economy people drink beer. In a bad economy people drink more beer.”

Most local home brewers have come to the same consensus: It’s going to take a lot more than the present price increase to abandon their craft.

“I enjoy the brewing process so much, as well as the finished product that prices would really have to skyrocket to make me decide not to brew,” said Brad Ginn, 38, a home brewer who lives in Poulsbo.

Dave Frombach, 47, a captain for the Washington State Ferries is also home brews his pints, agrees. He said brewing at home is a better deal than buying beer.

“While the price for ingredients has gone up for me, the price for the consumer buying micro brews in a store has gone up about the same proportion,” Frombach said. “Making brew from scratch is still a screaming deal from a money stand point.”

But that doesn’t mean home brewers aren’t concerned hops will run out altogether.

“One of the most popular hops, Cascade, hasn’t been in stock the last couple times I was at the home brew shop and probably won’t be for a long time,” said Ginn.

In Fall 2007, Frombach became worried when the key hops he needed weren’t available.

“As soon as they got those hops back in stock I did kind of panic and bought a large supply for my freezer just in case things got bad this winter,” Frombach said.

So far Ginn has been able to find the hops he needs for producing his brews but doesn’t think that will always be the case as it is still early in the shortage for the year.

“If it gets really bad and I can’t get hops at all I may try my hand at making mead or experiment with other herbs to flavor beer or I’ll just have to drink commercial beer until the next hop harvest,” said Ginn. “I hope it doesn’t come to that though.”

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