Some Will Have to Skip the Hops

Boston Beer's Jim Koch, right, inspects a hops crop with farmer Stefan Stanglmair in the Hallertau region of Bavaria in Germany.
Boston Beer's Jim Koch, right, inspects a hops crop with farmer Stefan Stanglmair in the Hallertau region of Bavaria in Germany. (Boston Beer)
By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Hops, the bitter spice in beer, have become green gold. Poor harvests, dwindling reserves and burgeoning demand for beer in Eastern Europe and Asia have sent hop prices soaring in the past couple of years. Some key varieties are almost impossible to get.

But small brewers do have several options. They can:

· Grow their own.

"People come visit us and ask, 'Are those wine grapes?' " says Taylor Smack, referring to the 200 hop plants on his property in Nelson County, Va., west of Charlottesville. The bristly vines are supported by a network of trellises built from telephone poles and 10-gauge wire. Some plants, Smack says, are 12 feet tall and sporting the burrs that will turn into the fragrant green cones prized by beermakers. All of his plants belong to a single strain, Cascade, valued for its piney, citrusy aroma and flavor.

In 2005, when he was laying plans for his Blue Mountain Brewery, Smack included a hop crop as an educational exhibit. But then the price of Cascades rose from $6 to $36 a pound in the space of a year. (If gas prices had risen equally astronomically, you'd be paying close to $19 a gallon at the pump.)

For now, Smack has been forced to substitute other varieties in his hoppy Full Nelson Pale Ale. But he expects that when his vines reach maturity in another year or two, yielding about 400 pounds annually, they'll solve his Cascade problem and meet 25 to 35 percent of his total hop needs. "It makes us look like geniuses," Smack says of his early decision to become a hop farmer.

Blue Mountain offers tours every day except Monday. Beer is available for on-premises tasting and to go. For more information, check out

In Fredericksburg, Blue & Gray Brewing owner Jeff Fitzpatrick cultivates about two dozen hop plants of a German variety called Hallertauer. They'll let him brew one batch of a fresh hop beer in the fall, he hopes, with enough left over to throw a few cones into his Fred Red Ale and other beers. (Check out for tour information.)

On the West Coast, Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, Calif., maker of such colorfully named beers as Hairy Eyeball and Gnarly Wine, has planted a one-third-acre test plot with two newer varieties, Emperor and Pathetique.

Hops are a hardy, vigorous plant (they can grow six to eight inches a day, Fitzpatrick says). It would be surprising if more breweries didn't follow suit.

· Win the lottery.

Jim Koch, chairman of Boston Beer, decided to make some of his hop reserves available at cost to his colleagues: specifically, five tons of Tettnanger, a classic German lager hop with a delicate, floral bitterness, and five tons of East Kent Goldings, an English ale variety noted for its earthy, softly fruity aromatics.

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