There are questions that you wait a lifetime waiting to be asked.
A few years ago Carol asked me in all seriousness what the difference is between a buffalo and a bison. My eyes lit up as I replied ‘You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo’. As the bar wife tells me rather too often for my liking ‘You’re not funny’. That hasn’t stopped me waiting for the time when I will be disturbed from contemplating my pint by an old boy who passes the time with a typically English ‘It looks like rain’. Quick as a flash I will reply ‘Yes, with just a faint hint of hops’.
That time may have come a little closer. Not because of the increase in gullible inquisitors, but rather the reported shortage of hops. Back in the middle ages that might have been seen as a good thing. Introduced from Holland in the early 15th century they were banned from being used in brewing in Norwich in 1471 and they were still being condemned as a ‘wicked and pernicious weed’ as late as 1519. However, the benefits of the use of hops finally overcame the doubts of the old guard due to the antibacterial properties enhancing the shelf life and the improved flavour due to the sweetness of the malt being balanced by the bitterness imparted by the hops.
Today, hops are used for both the bitterness which comes from varieties containing a high percentage of alpha acids and the aroma from varieties which contain hop oils. When I began drinking back in the 70’s, heavily hopped beers were a rarity, with only Holts and Boddingtons being widely available in my home area. These days the bar at any free house is likely to be groaning with examples of this style of beer, with some craft breweries seemingly being engaged in a hop race to stuff as much bitterness and aroma into their products as is humanly possible.
Bad weather in the hop producing areas of Europe has caused prices of some varieties to rise by 50% whilst others are five times more expensive or simply unavailable. This is not a big problem for large brewers who use far less hops in their beers and your Ruddles Best or Greene King IPA will probably emerge unscathed, especially as many of their suppliers will be under contract. However, the small producers who use a far higher level of hops, especially some of the rarer varieties may well have trouble in sourcing a supply. Still, they are a resourceful bunch. Perhaps they will trade a few empty casks for a pocket of hops. Maybe they will experiment with other varieties of hops or styles of beer which require less in the recipe.
If the shortage continues, there may well be new hop farms planted, but they cannot be harvested for three years so this will not be a quick fix. I know that some local brewers have experimented with planting their own hop gardens, but that would seem to be more of a marketing gimmick than a long term solution. Adnams and Harveys are amongst the brewers who have sold beers which have been brewed with wild hops, but again this is unlikely to be a long term solution.
So, should we be worried by the shortage? Not really. Prices of some beers might rise slightly and others become unavailable, but the natural resourcefulness of our brewers and the increasing willingness of drinkers to try new brews might make it a blessing in disguise, with the chance of stunning new beers emerging from the hop crisis.