Monday, April 07, 2008

Have We Reached "Peak Beer"?

Friends, you may want to sit down before you read this. I bring news of a great catastrophe that threatens our lives, our livelihood and all we hold dear.

There is a global shortage of hops and malt. Our beer, that which makes our lives brighter and better, is threatened.

A combination of factors has led to this sad state. A drought in Australia two years ago killed much of thier hops supply. In Europe, too much rain did the same. Many farmers worldwide have abandoned hops (which were a dicey crop to begin with, financially) and began to grow corn, often fueled by a rising demand for ethanol. And with the corn going to ethanol, the malt has often became feed for livestock.

More strongly-flavored brews have suffered most. Some brewers have realized that they are going to have to raise prices to keep up the quality of their product. Some have scrambled to refigure their seasonal menu, using less hops in each batch.
Otter Creek [Brewery in Vermont]'s spring seasonal has traditionally been an extra special bitter — commonly abbreviated ESB — but this year they could not get the specific English hops called for in the recipe and instead made a German-style Kolsch, a lighter beer.

"It was very much a last-minute, pull-it-out-of-your-hat type of thing," he said. "There were some very old hops lying around at triple the price and we weren't willing to do that."

Ray McNeill, owner of McNeill's Brewery in Brattleboro, told a similar story, saying his Imperial Stout and Imperial India Pale Ale will not be available in bottles until next year.

"If I put the Imperial IPA out there, we'll burn up our hops and not be able to make any more beer," he said. "It would be suicide."

In their place, McNeill said he may produce low-hop lagers, Belgian strong beer and Scottish brown ale.
In the face of this tragedy, some heroes are standing together to ensure that we might weather this crisis. One of America's largest craft breweries, Boston Beer Co., makers of the Samuel Adams brand (and headquartered, strangely enough, in Massachusetts) surveyed their supply of hops, notified other, smaller breweries, and held a lottery, selling hops, at cost, to 108 brewers around the country.
About six weeks ago Boston Beer sent out notifications to small brewers that it wanted to help them by making available some of its hops at cost. The company said it received 352 requests totaling about 100,000 pounds, much more than it could give away.

"It shows how great the need is and I felt really bad," said Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch. "We even fudged it a little and went over the 20,000 pounds, but we just don't have the capability of filling this hole ourselves."

Koch said the company looked at its supply of hops and decided to live up a long established culture among craft brewers.

"We view each other as colleagues not as competitors," he said.
Even state and local government is doing their best to assist in this time of need: In Columbia, SC, the city is issuing licenses to sell beer and wine on Sundays for the first time since the Prohibition, while in San Francisco, the ban on alcohol has been lifted from this year's North Beach Festival. But not all of America is dealing with this crisis with that same nobility of spirit. Beer-related crimes appear to be on the rise: two Illinois teens beat a homeless man to death over a can of beer; a man stealing a backpack loaded with beer got caught in the straps while scaling a chainlink fence, and choked to death. The Arizona government is exploiting this tragedy as an opportunity to double the state taxes on alcoholic beverages.

As always, politics have entered the arena: beer heiress Cindy McCain has been sharing the stage with her husband John at rallies, while bartenders in Brooklyn are saying that a limited production ale named Hop Obama is their best selling brew ever.

While the struggle rages around them, beer drinkers around the world are left to wonder what the future holds.

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