KENNEWICK — Some small craft brewers are having trouble securing hops for their flavorful beers, even though Washington state farmers have boosted production of the crop in recent years.
Growing demand from craft brewers is prompting more farmers to plant the aroma variety of hops that add herbal, fruity and floral flavors to microbrews.
The Tri-City Herald reported Monday that Washington farmers harvested more than 54.9 million pounds of hops last year, up 13 percent from 2012.
But the number of craft breweries is also growing. As of 2013, there were almost 2,500 craft breweries nationwide, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association. That was nearly 500 more than 2011.
Mike Sutherland, owner of White Bluffs Brewing in Richland, says those breweries are all competing for hops.
Area breweries say they don’t expect the demand for craft beers to decline.
Craft beers are flavorful, said Geoff Gruetzmacher of Richland’s Growler Guys. And it’s that taste that has helped make them popular.
Hops farmer Dan Newhouse, co-owner of Irving Newhouse & Sons near Sunnyside, said he used to think microbreweries were a fad. But the continuing popularity is a good thing for hop farmers because craft breweries tend to use more hops per barrel than mass-produced beers.
The United States produces the second most hops in the world, after Germany, according to data from Hop Growers of America. Washington state grows about 79 percent of U.S. hops, according to the USDA.
Washington farmers used to primarily grow alpha hops, which act as the bittering agent in beer, said Ann George, administrator for Hop Growers of America. At one point that made up about 70 percent of the state’s production.
But craft breweries demand aroma hops. This year, the amount of aroma and alpha hops were about even in Washington. George expects to see that grow to about 60 percent aroma hops in the next year.
That poses a challenge for farmers, since aroma varieties can be more sensitive to excessive heat, Newhouse said. Last year’s hot summer meant some varieties did not fare well, he said.
Flavors of aroma hops can vary widely, Newhouse said.
“All these breweries want to be unique and they want their beer to stand out,” Newhouse said. Hops are one way to accomplish that.
Craft beer used to be a small percentage of beer volume, George said. But it has kept chugging along, reaching about 10 percent of beer volume a couple of years ago.
“I think that we will see continued phenomenal growth here for a few more years,” George said. Then, it’s likely to become more moderate, she said.