Beer makers in Alaska brace for skyrocketing price of hops

Alaskan Brewing Co. owner says shortage will affect consumers

Posted: Tuesday, November 20, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Alaska beer makers say a worldwide shortage of hops has drastically raised the price and cut the accessibility of this popular ingredient.

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In coming months, consumers can expect to see a noticeable difference at the cash register.

Among breweries feeling the pinch is the Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. in Fox. The company brews its Old Gerk IPA using pellets of Cascade hops grown in the Yakima Valley of Washington. Prices for the hops have quadrupled in the past year, so a 5-gallon keg of Old Gerk is going for $60, up from $55.

"It takes a lot of hops to make that beer," said brewmaster Glenn Brady.

Small breweries are expected to be particularly hurt by the shortage of hops, used for centuries to give beer its distinct bitter flavor and smell. Such craft breweries market beer based on unique flavors tied to specific varieties of hops.

To get those flavors, craft brewers can use as much as 10 times the amount of hops than other recipes call for, according to Geoff Larson, co-owner of the Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau.

Larson said he expects some six packs to cost 75 cents to a dollar more to brew. Alaskan Amber, based on a 100-year-old recipe, calls for Saaz hops from the Czech Republic.

The price of those hops has jumped 500 percent over the past year. The price of malt, another main ingredient for beer, increased 80 percent during the same time period.

"When you have that kind of raw material increase in your product, prices will be going up," Larson said.

Hops have some pharmaceutical qualities, but the flower is grown almost exclusively for the beer market. For a decade or more, grain silos have been filled to the brim. That drove down prices and led many farmers to switch over fields to more profitable crops.

Low yields in the main growing regions of the world, however, mean farmers don't have enough hops to go around. With new plants needing a few years to reach maturity, it could be a while before prices stabilize.

"It's a complete change in the market," said Trev Mostella, a local home-brewer who teaches beer making through the culinary arts program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Tanana Valley Campus.

The shortage also is making hops harder to get.

Chris Seymore purchases home-brewing supplies for Gavora's Liquor & Fine Wine in Fairbanks and buys certain varieties of hops for customers following specific recipes.

After hearing reports of dwindling supplies, Seymore increased his most recent order of hops, hoping to keep shelves stocked longer. He ordered a dozen varieties, but his Washington-based distributor could spare only three.

"There's so little you can do here on the tip of the iceberg," Seymore said.

Seymore and Mostella expect brewers to start changing recipes.

Brady doubled his recent order of Cascade hops. He plans to ration it among the flagship beers he packages and retails. For other beers he sells at his in-house restaurant and beer store, the plan is to adjust the recipes and come up with some new names.

As for Old Gerk, the current batch is probably the last until prices drop.

"We're looking forward to some maltier, less hoppy beers in the future," Brady said.

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