Usually, beer samples arrive at my home cushioned with bubble wrap and Styrofoam peanuts. But the 12-ounce can of Hop Crisis, a double IPA from the 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco, came in a box stuffed with fresh, crumbled-up hops. I feel lucky that drug-sniffing dogs didn’t intercept the aromatic package while it was in transit. After all, the hop, Humulus lupulus, is a close relative of Cannabis sativa.
Hop Crisis is one of the biggest beers ever packaged in an aluminum cylinder, measuring 9.7 percent alcohol by volume and 94 IBUs. (International bitterness units, or IBUs, are a measure of alpha acids, the principal bittering component in hops. Twelve IBUs are at the threshold of taste. Sixty IBUs mark a solid India pale ale. Eighty IBUs are past the ability of the human palate to detect any further gradations in bitterness, according to some brewers I’ve talked to.)
Additionally, Hop Crisis is aged with toasted oak spirals that, according to brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan, add “a back-palate dryness that complements the hops.”
For such a huge beer, Hop Crisis is fairly light on the palate — a consequence of the brewers using dextrose, a simple, easily fermentable sugar, to boost the alcohol without adding extra body or sweetness.
The can, which comes in four-packs, shows caricatures of O’Sullivan and his partner, Nico Freccia, in striped prison uniform, plotting an escape from Alcatraz to liberate the hops from “a hop syndicate” that is “hoarding the hops in a remote warehouse.”
Are they pulling our leg? Are we facing a major hop deficit?
At the Craft Brewers Conference in San Francisco this past March, one dealer in hop extract said he expected a “big slam” in 2014. “Brewers don’t want to sign contracts with hop growers,” he explained. “They want to buy on the spot market for the lowest price. Farmers are tearing up hops and planting corn.”
Three years ago, a “perfect storm” of bad weather, poor harvests and a weak American dollar did result in a severe hop shortage in the United States, driving the price of some key varieties to as high as $30 a pound or more. As a philanthropic gesture, Boston Beer Co. chairman Jim Koch offered 20,000 pounds of surplus hops at cost to his fellow brewers. He received requests for 100,000 pounds.
“Some people actually believed that there was a conspiracy of sorts, that a hop cartel similar to OPEC was hoarding hops to drive up the price,” laughs O’Sullivan.
But the talk of a hop conspiracy on the can is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, he admits. For the time being, common strains like Cascade and Columbus are abundant, and prices have dropped to a reasonable $5/6 a pound.
However, a few aroma varieties like Simcoe, Ahtanum and Amarillo (all of which are used in Hop Crisis) are in short supply due to low acreage and high demand from brewers eager to try the latest strains. “We as brewers tend to move in packs,” says O’Sullivan. “When we hear about something, we jump on it.”
O’Sullivan admits he’s had to reformulate beer to compensate for a lack of certain hop varieties. “It makes you a smarter businessman,” he insists. “You need to contract your hops to safeguard your supply.”
And maybe stop using them as packing material.