May 27, 2014
There's no shortage of breweries in Central Virginia, but there's growing fear of a shortage of one of beer's main ingredients.
Craft breweries say the crops of hops are in high demand.
"Hops are actually the flower of the vine and they contain a strong amounts of bittering acids that we use for bitterness, and they're a preservative for beer," said Hunter Smith, the owner and brewmaster at Champion Brewing Company in Charlottesville.
The reason for a looming shortage is because of the increasing popularity of breweries.
"With so many new breweries opening, there's definitely a tension on supply, and the prices are going up," Smith said.
Hops that are widely available, which usually flavor big-name beers, likely won't be affected. It's the specialty brews that could see the impact.
One reason for the shortage is that many varieties of hops are proprietary. Certain companies or farmers own the genetic sequence of the hops, so not everyone can make the specific varieties.
"We've always sort of used expensive and cool, sometimes extreme varieties of hops," Smith said. "The difficulty for us in having established a much bigger production brewery is that getting those cool, expensive hops in the volumes that we need has been a challenge."
Based on simple supply and demand theory, the prices are going up, so the breweries need to get creative.
"It's actually pretty frequent that other brewers say, 'Hey, I need this, but I've got some of this. I'll trade you, or can we sell?'" Smith said. "So it's driving some more brewery-to-brewery sales, and also some third-party sales that are sort of bumping up prices because they can."
There is a chance some favorite draught beers may be in short supply, but Smith warns of imitators that may be lesser quality.
"I think a worse alternative than not making them would be making them with a compromised, substitute ingredient," he said. "I personally would rather find a cooler way to implement an available hop than to try to make a substitute and cheapen this particular beer."