Raise a glass, beer drinkers. Kansas City area brewers say America’s hops shortage is under control and may even be nearing an end.
It’s especially good news for craft brewing fans. An explosion in the use of hops and the introduction of newer hop varieties have beer drinkers pondering, discussing and debating hops the way wine connoisseurs weigh vintages.
Craft brewers are pounding more and more hops into beers, and at more stages of the production process, in pursuit of new and stronger aromas and flavors — grapefruit, melon, flowers, lemon and more.
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“It’s kind of like we’re in a hops race,” said Bryce Schaffter of Cinder Block Brewery in North Kansas City.
Craft beer’s race is all about the laboriously produced, thumb-sized, soft cone flower of the hop plant. Brewers have more than 100 varieties with wide-ranging names such as Helga, Triplepearl, Fuggle, Dr. Rudi and Saaz.
Each crafter wants to produce that next brew consumers will be talking about — assuming the brewery can get enough of the right hop varieties. Many newer and dominant varieties, such as Citra, Mosaic and Amarillo, have been hard to find and costly when they show up.
Larger breweries, including Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing Co., lock up needed supplies of hops with contracts that stretch three to five years. Smaller brewers say they’ve worked through sporadically tight supplies by substituting, swapping and paying up when necessary.
“There’s always a lot of hops out there,” said Travis Moore, brewmaster and co-owner of Torn Label Brewing Co. in Kansas City. “It’s just which varieties, at what time, at what price and who’s got the contract.”
Shortages should be easing with harvest in the Pacific Northwest— unrivaled as America’s hops belt — expected to produce a record crop. That also should prod some brewers who overstocked to avoid a shortage to offer more of their leftovers for sale.
The hops market has also attracted at least two local growers, who have jumped into production with their first crops already showing up in Kansas City-brewed beers.
Brewers traditionally have used hops to add bitterness to beer. It balances the sweetness from the malted grain. Yeast does the fermenting and also brings flavor.
The hops race is playing out mostly in a specific style of beer called an IPA, which is short for India Pale Ale.
The race is about flavor and aroma more than a balancing bitterness. Brewers deliver citrus and piney punches to an IPA by adding more and more hops to their recipes. A traditional beer sold nationally might use a quarter-pound or half-pound of hops per barrel. Modern IPAs consume one to four pounds of hops per barrel, sometimes more.
Hops add bitterness by going into the boil when a batch starts production. Hops added midway through, and again late in the process, infuse more of their unique flavor and aroma to the beer.
After fermentation, still more hops go in through a process called dry hopping. Brewmasters at this stage are focused on boosting flavor and aroma — citrus, piney, fruity, herbal, spicy, earthy.
“If you drink an American IPA, you’re going to get smacked in the nose with pine,” said Jeff Emory, a retired Kansas City area doctor who has gotten into brewing and hops.
Sometimes, not just any hops will do.
IPA recipes have relied traditionally on established hop varieties such as Centennial that any grower can plant. Many newer hop varieties that produce stronger flourishes often are patented and trademarked. Their production is controlled by their owners, and they’re in shorter supply.
It’s one reason 44-pound bales of trademarked Citra hops recently were priced at $16, $18 and $20 a pound while more plentiful Centennial bales fetched half that on the Lupulin Exchange, where hops trade.
Without a contract, brewers can struggle to get scarcer varieties consistently, in the amounts they need, and at a price they’re willing to pay. High prices for hops — easily the most expensive element in a recipe — can squeeze the profit out of a batch.
For small operations, scoring even one bale of a highly sought variety of hops can be all it takes.
“If we buy 44 pounds of hops, that can be enough to last us at least six months, depending on the variety,” Eric Martens at Border Brewing Co. said of the 3-barrel capacity brewery in Kansas City.
Chris Meyers co-founded Crane Brewing Co. a year ago, short-handed in the hops department.
“We knew that there would be a lot of hops that we wouldn’t be able to get or wouldn’t be able to get for a long time,” he said.
Meyers’ answer has been to blend the hops in Raytown-based Crane’s beers.
Its Farmhouse IPA uses eight to 10 different hop varieties. And, more to the point, Crane’s promotions focus on the flavors and aromas those hops produce rather than the names of the varieties used. Some brewers specifically flag the hop varieties their beers contain.
Other breweries in the area willingly change things up. Recipes change at McCoy’s Public House beers based on which hop varieties are available, said Randyl Danner, beer director of Beer KC, which owns McCoy’s.
“For bigger breweries it’s a little bit harder because they have specific recipes that they go by every time,” she said.
Changes work because craft beer fans often look for something new, even in familiar names.
That’s the idea behind Hang’em High, an IPA from Torn Label Brewing. The first batch was a test run, but a second batch came and brewermaster Moore drew from the hops on hand. Batches 3 through 8 have followed, each with its own blend of hop varieties. Moore called it a rotating IPA.
“There is very little overlap between iterations of that beer,” he said. “We didn’t want to brew exactly the same thing.”
America’s hops shortage likely is turning as the season turns.
Harvest is wrapping up in the Pacific Northwest, the heart of hop country, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecast a record 91.8 million pound crop, up 16 percent from a year ago.
Steve Pauwels, brewmaster at Boulevard Brewing, said hop brokers tell him they’re still holding hops from the 2015 crop that breweries contracted to take but haven’t.
“Normally, 2015 should be all gone. It should all be with the breweries,” Pauwels said.
Much of it likely was ordered to guard against shortages but now becomes surplus hops that soon will be bound for secondary markets.
Hops also are being grown in more Midwestern states, notably Michigan and including Missouri and Kansas.
Royal Hops Co. harvested its third crop in late August on three acres west of Edgerton in Platte County. It was a relative bin-busting 1,000 pounds compared with only 50 pounds a year ago and, its owners hope, 4,000 pounds next year.
That’s because hop plants take about three years to reach full production, at least outside of Washington State’s hop central, Yakima Valley.
It is laborious.
Hop plants grow as bines, which are a lot like vines. Growers plant a hop root and suspend cables overhead along crop rows. Ropes stretch 12 to 20 feet vertically between the cables. In the case of Royal Hops’ small plot, deft fingers tied roughly 11,000 knots — one at the top and one at the bottom of each rope.
The first shoots of spring have to be trained to climb the ropes. At harvest, ropes are cut down and fed through a harvesting machine that strips the bines and then sorts the leaves from the cone flowers. Spring means another crop and more knot-tying.
A few miles southwest of Ottawa, Kansas Hop Co. harvested a half acre of hops this year, its first. As a first-year harvest, the picking was done by hand to keep the bines in place longer to help further establish new plants.
“It’s farming, like, 100 years ago,” said Ryan Triggs, one of three partners in the venture.
Both local growers eye local breweries as customers for the industry-preferred dried and compressed hops that can be stored easily and used throughout the year. Freshly picked hops lose their punch quickly if not processed.
Still, both have provided fresh hops locally for an extra punch, with some of Kansas Hop Co.’s recent harvest in batch 8 of Torn Label’s Hang’em High. It was an exercise in precise timing.
“You have basically a 24-hour window from the time that they’re picked,” Triggs said. “I drove them up to Kansas City... and they brewed them the next day.”