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Will the Pacific Northwest Drought Impact Our Beer?

Washington state’s fires thankfully didn’t harm this year's hops harvest—but the drought did.

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Although hops make up a vanishingly small part of the ingredients in beer, these flowers provide our favorite sudsy beverages with their personalities—think the bright floral aromas of a well-balanced IPA or the lingering citrusy bite of an artful saison. There’s no ingredient that brewers worry over and obsess about more than their hops.

With the Pacific Northwest in the midst of a historic drought, which contributed to a spate of devastating summer fires, interested eyes have turned to Washington’s Yakima Valley—with its ideal hops-growing conditions—for news of the 2015 harvest. The official word isn’t bad, but it’s not exactly great either.

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“The Washington harvest is up about 13 percent from 2014,” says Bart Watson, staff economist at the Boulder-based Brewers Association, which represents craft brewers. That sounds good, except hops growers in the Pacific Northwest—by far the biggest growing region in the U.S.—put in 16 percent more acres this year, so overall yields are actually down, and the drought and heat are to blame.

“In June and early July, the growers were facing a massive heat wave, with temperatures over 100 [degrees] for a week to 10 days straight,” says Ryan Hornung, brewing materials procurement supply manager (a.k.a. hops expert) at MillerCoors, who was recently in Washington for the harvest. “At the same time, the snowpack in the Cascades [mountain range] was something like 15 percent of normal, so water use started to be rationed by anyone without very senior water rights.”

While the Pacific Northwest was baking from the drought, the hops plants had reached a crucial time in their life cycles, when the bines are climbing the trellis and storing the energy that will become the hop cones, or flowers, used in brewing. Deprived of water, the cone size would end up being smaller, so there’s less resinous lupulin, which flavors beer, and a lower alpha acid rating. A second weather event just a few weeks ago—a sustained windstorm that blew a number of cones off the bines—added to harvest woes, says Hornung.

(Is the hops boom on Colorado’s Western Slope the next big thing?)

How hard the crops were hit also depends on the variety. Fragile, early flowering types, like Centennial, were “devastated” by the drought, says Hornung, but hardier breeds like Cascade fared much better. The result is that many hops brewers may be forced to shift what varieties they use to brew their beer. With craft brewing surging, current supply simply can’t meet the demand—and that’s a trend that extends well beyond the American west. Germany also had a modestly low harvest this year, so brewers might have a tough time picking up extra hops elsewhere.

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So what does this year’s harvest mean for the average beer drinker? You probably won’t see higher prices at your local pub or liquor store in the upcoming year. Watson points out that “even the most aggressively hopped beers only use five or so pounds per barrel. That’s a couple of cents per pint.” Plus, hops yards and even some brewers keep some supply on hand from past harvests, and brewers often contract prices for hops two to three years out. But anyone buying on the open, or spot, market may pay dearly for hops this fall.

Long-term, the future of hops is wide open, but it comes with a cost. In a recent blog post, Watson wrote that projections indicate that craft brew growth will require an extra 12,000 acres of hop production by 2020. In the Pacific Northwest, “Those acres exist,” says Hornung, but not as open land. “Farmers would be converting corn or beans or orchards to hop production.” And that will only happen if prices rise high enough to support the substantial investment needed to convert acreage.

It’s possible that other regions, like Michigan, with some 800 total acres of hops production, could grow as well, says Watson. But because hops growing is capital-intensive, neither Michigan nor Colorado, with some 100 to 150 acres under production now, has the infrastructure in place—at least not yet. “It’ll be years down the road,” Watson says.

The immediate concern with brewers nationwide is this continuing weather pattern. The 2015–16 El Niño is expected to be one of the strongest ever on record, and typically makes for warm, dry winters in the Pacific Northwest. National Weather Service projections call for a 60 percent chance of higher winter temperatures for central Washington, and up to a 40 percent chance of lower precipitation there and in the Cascades, whose snowpack supplies much of the Yakima Valley’s water. If snowfall is poor and the area endures another hot, dry summer, then it’s anyone’s guess what will happen with hops—and our beloved beers—in the coming years.

(Our search to find Colorado’s ultimate craft brew)

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