Pricey hops make a bitter brew

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Friday, February 01, 2008

PouringBeer.jpg

STATEWIDE Beer makers across the state are facing a brew as bitter — though not nearly as refreshing — as a hoppy Oregon pale ale.

Weak hop harvests the past two years — the result of bad weather stateside and overseas — and a gradual decline in production have converged in a shortage of the spicy, bitter flowers that give beer its bite. As a result, prices have increased from roughly $2 a pound in 2006 to close to $20 today, but that’s assuming a brewer can even find any hops.

“Everybody’s in a mass frenzy right now,” says Mark Henion, head brewer for Cascade Lakes Brewing Co. in Redmond.

Such a shortage — paired with other ingredient shortfalls and price increases — could eventually hit all of Oregon’s 60-plus craft breweries, which, along with the entire beer industry, poured more than $2.2 billion into the state’s economy in 2006. Beer prices are bubbling up for consumers, as well. There’s been talk of $9 six packs and $5 pints, and indeed, consumers already are seeing some six-pack prices up by as much as $2.

“A lot of people have raised prices,” Henion says, adding that Cascade Lakes raised prices “a little bit” last year.

Mark Vickery, brewmaster at McMinnville’s Golden Valley Brewery, says the shortage also may find brewers venturing into fruit beers or other styles that require fewer hops. And more brewers will likely end up contracting with growers, something Henion has done through 2010 .

“That will be beneficial,” says Michelle Palacios, administrator for the Oregon Hop Commission, “so growers know what brewers want and brewers get what they need.”

Although Oregon’s hop production is down — from 10.2 million pounds in 1998 to 9.5 million last year — Palacios says that compared with the past few years, more hops are going in the ground here and in Washington, and hopes are high that the 2008 overseas harvest will be stout. Weather permitting, brewers and growers seem confident the hop shortage will correct itself in two years. The in-between, however, is likely to be tough.        

JON BELL


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