Hop harvest is now winding down across the UK. Hops are only at their peak ripeness for about a week per variety – most farmers only have enough expensive harvesting machinery to just cover the acreage they grow – which means that harvest is an extremely busy time. There are still some growers picking their late higher alpha varieties and so the final numbers aren’t quite in.
However we do know that yields of the earliest varieties such as Fuggles and ‘Early-Choice’ Goldings (which is the most widely grown of the Goldings cultivars) are extremely poor – down 40-50% on 2o17 (an exceptionally strong year) and down maybe 30% on an ‘average’ harvest. Mid-season varieties (Challenger, main crop Goldings, Progress) have been less affected, and it is probable that the later varieties (Jester, Pilgrim, Target) will have recovered due to the much needed rain in late August.
Just as brewers enter into hop contracts with merchants, merchants have contracts with farmers. Typically a farmer will contract about 80% of what they expect to produce. This is so that they don’t ‘short’ the merchants in a bad year – the surplus is then sold on the ‘spot’ market after harvest. The problem in 2018 is that yields are so poor that farmers aren’t going to be able to deliver on all their contracts to merchants and this could mean that merchants can’t fulfil their contracts to brewers.
If your recipes use Fuggles and Goldings heavily, and especially if you have historically bought on the spot market, it would probably be worth checking that supply of what you want from harvest ’18 is assured. It might be necessary to use some hops from 2017 – a year in which yields were good – or even make varietal substitutions (Sovereign or Styrian Goldings for Fuggles, Progress for Goldings) in order to keep brewing.
The farm manager Henry and his team here at Brook House Farm have worked hard during the growing season. A combination of attention to detail and innovative growing techniques have meant that yields here were up on 2017. We have significant quantities of ’18 hops in excess of our merchant and brewer contracts. Quality seems good – the long hot summer has lead to some fine aromas coming from the hops which have been sampled so far. Spot 2018 Goldings, Fuggles and Challenger will be available in the next couple of weeks. Do get in touch with the team here if you would like some samples, or to visit the farm and make a selection. We are also offering contracts for premium english varieties from the ’18 crop forward.
Fuggles (above), and some Goldings varieties, are usually the first hop varieties to be harvested in the UK. We will be picking ours in the first couple of weeks of September. These hops are just going into burr. Burr is the growth stage when delicate flowers emerge on hop plants – they are the precursor of the hop cones which we harvest for making beer.
The UK is blessed (from a farming perspective at least!) by high levels of rainfall when plants need it the most – in the spring and summer. This means we get some of the highest yields of staple crops like wheat and barley in the world – all without the need for expensive, and often unsustainable irrigation systems. Unfortunately the weather in 2018 has not played along: after a wet cold spring, rain has been almost non-existent in the UK’s two hop growing regions (Kent and Herefordshire / Worcestershire). This has been exacerbated by scorching temperatures which increase the plant’s demand for water – one hop plant can ‘drink’ up to 60 litres per week in the spring. Besides the direct need from the plants themselves for water, a bit of moisture will dissolve the fertiliser which farmers spread on top of the soil, allowing plants to take it up at the optimal time.
The lack of rain has cracked the ground right open, and means that most hops across the UK are showing signs of stress. Recently planted hops (like the fuggles above) or hops on light soil will be affected the most.
These hops would normally be dark, lush green all the way down the bine. A lack of moisture is turning the leaves yellow (and the boy angry!).
The hops might come back – late spring and early summer in 2011 were hot and dry, which lead to sharp reductions in the yields of arable crops harvested in July and August that year. Rainfall later on in the summer though meant that hops recovered, and yields were close to long-term averages. However it is probable that the yields of early varieties such as Fuggles will be reduced in 2018.
Paradoxically a poor harvest nationally can be good for farmers (if not for brewers). Brewers need hops to make beer which means that demand is price-inelastic and makes the price paid more volatile than many other crops. To illustrate this, a 20% decline in yields could lead to a 50% increase in spot prices if there is a scramble to secure supplies. A farmer selling on the spot market would prefer £15 / kg for 600 kg / acre vs £10 / kg for 750 kg / acre. Even if price signals help clear the market in the short-term, it might be that brewers need to show some flexibility in their recipes – substituting in similar hops, or blending hops from different years.
Great weather and low levels of disease pressure meant that 2017’s yields dramatically exceeded long-term averages. This depressed spot prices at the farm gate, and probably also means that large inventories of 2017’s crop will be carried over in stores at merchants and brewers into 2018. A poor harvest in 2018 may actually then be best for the health of the industry.
British Hops are unique – Goldings and Fuggles can combine to produce great cask-conditioned beer. However modern craft beer is often built on the US ‘big four’: Amarillo, Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe – along with Southern-Hemisphere favourites like Galaxy and Nelson Sauvin.
This leaves problems for craft brewers in the UK – on the one-hand they celebrate local beer, but they themselves struggle to get the flavour they want out of locally grown hops. In the long-run, Bramling Cross, Ernest, Endeavour and Jester (and their daughter varieties) may generate the kind of interesting flavour profiles which brewers are after – there could even be a shift in taste towards more drinkable session beers which use British hops. In the short-term what is a brewer to do though? Cloudwater and Magic Rock deserve respect for using UK extract (of Pilgrim and Target respectively) early on in the boil for alpha.
Sure – brewers can buy bitterness from CTZ or Herkules more cheaply, but buying British means that UK hop growers can stay alive to fight another day. Buying UK alpha hops is an easy way for craft brewers to support their local farmers, and ensure that our breeding programs survive to support the next generation of craft brewers.
Brewers need hops to brew tasty beer.
Hops can either be bought on contracts (you agree a price now for delivery in a couple of year’s time), or on the spot market for immediate delivery. Contracts are generally best:
- Hop prices are volatile – as a brewer you can protect yourself from future fluctuations by fixing the price of much of what you will need now.
- Farmers want certainty – planting and harvesting hops are expensive. By contracting for a few year’s supply of Amarillo, you give a farmer (and their bank manager!) confidence that they will be able to recoup any investment they need to make in new wirework or kilning machinery.
However life isn’t always simple. Maybe business is booming, you have a new brewhouse, and it runs on pellet not leaf. What do you do with your old contracts for whole-cone? Maybe you do a collab with the funky new brewer down the road, and need some hops at short-notice?
Previously these shortfalls and oversupply have been handled through notice-boards (SIBA Classifieds etc), or individual negotiations between brewers and their merchants. However things changed a few years back in the US with the launch of an online marketplace – brewers there have been able to use the Lupulin Exchange to get back into balance, and also to get hold of varieties like Galaxy and Citra which were previously difficult to source.
The Lupulin Exchange has also solved problems for farmers: crop yields depend on the weather and so growers can’t predict exactly how many hops they will have after harvest. We grew a lot more hops than we had expected in 2017 and struggled to sell our surplus at reasonable prices. Brook House Hops is partnering with the Lupulin Exchange for their European launch – by transparently dealing directly with brewers, we hope to keep the market in balance across the UK and Europe.
I’m really excited to announce that Brook House Hops is changing the way that hop farmers and brewers trade, by selling our hops online; making us the first direct to brewer hop grower in the UK!
Traditionally, hops are sold via merchants, however, we believe that this new direct approach will be well received by brewers who are looking for; greater transparency, provenance, freshness and access to specialist varieties, at a time when there is a boom in craft beers.
Our 2017 hop crop will be available to purchase from April on The Lupulin Exchange, an online marketplace for hop buying; already popular in the United States. In addition, we plan to offer a sales portal through our website in the near future.
I really think that the increasing demand for craft beers requires a new approach to growing and sourcing hops. Brewers are looking for new flavours and better quality hops. We’re as meticulous about the quality of our hops as the finest craft brewers are about their beer. We all want to know the source of our fruit and vegetables why should hops be any different?
My aim is to grow the most aromatic and verdant hops in the UK as well as sourcing new and unusual varieties from the US. Much like grapes, it’s all about the terroir and there are some really interesting varieties grown in the US such as Citra and Amarillo that we want to introduce to the UK. I’ve been working closely with a group of American hop farmers and we now have a complete refrigerated supply chain to ensure that these hops get to brewers in the best possible shape!
If you are a brewery and are interested in buying your hops direct please find us now on the Lupulin Exchange.