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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Brewers adjust recipes due to Hop barley and rice prices

By David Kravets Email 05.10.08 | 1:00 PM
A brewer 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco shows a bucket of hop pellets.
Photo Jim Merithew/

OAKLAND, California -- At Pacific Coast Brewing here, brewer Donald Gortemiller is reworking his recipes and altering his brewing styles like never before.

Gortemiller isn't acting on a spurt of creativity. He's coping with a worldwide shortage of hops -- the spice of beer. The dry cones of a particular flowering vine, hops are what give your favorite brew its flavor and aroma. Prices of the commodity are skyrocketing as hop supplies have plummeted, forcing smaller brewmasters around the United States to begin quietly tweaking their recipes, in ways that are easily discerned by serious imbibers.

The shortage -- caused by a dwindling number of hop growers worldwide, and exacerbated by a Yakima, Washington, warehouse fire -- has forced Gortemiller to use fewer and different hops than before, changing the flavor of his beer. He's also resorted to beer hacks, like "dry hopping," in which the hops are added late to the mix, consuming fewer hops and yielding a more consistent flavor.

"When hops were $2 a pound, compared to $20 or $30 a pound now, it didn't matter. We'd throw them into the boil at various times," Gortemiller says. "That was an inaccurate way of doing things. We're modifying recipes and using about 20 percent less hops."

Brewer Chuey Munkanta at the 21st Amendment Brewery pulls the grain out of the wash tun.
Photo Jim Merithew,

The beer-brewing situation demonstrates how the global-commodity shortage is spilling over to affect diverse industries in unexpected ways. The hop shortage lives on the outer edges of a food crisis that's prompted riots across the planet, and last month led U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon to implore the world's governments to increase food production to stave off a 40 percent jump in the cost of staples.

While nobody in the craft-beer industry is going hungry, they are being forced to adapt. There's no replacement for hops in beer -- they give the brew its flavor. But other key ingredients are in short supply, as well. Malt, which comes from sprouted barley, produces the alcohol and body of beer -- its prices have doubled along with hops. The price of rice, used by industrial brewers, has charted a similar course.

The larger commercial brewers are better off. Most have long-term contracts for hops, barley and rice, and are doing whatever is necessary not to tinker with their brand names.

"Coors Banquet has been tweaked very little since it was introduced in the 1800s," says Molson Coors spokeswoman Jenny Volanakis. "We don't play around with our beers."