Don’t get your hops up

I used to love hops. I loved them when I was buying them on a homebrew scale and making award winning double IPAs. I suspect I will love them again. That moment isn’t here yet.

Depending on the time of year and the style of beers involved, hops can be a nightmare for a startup brewery. We started working in earnest on Odd13 back in December. We got to a point in early February where we knew approximately (hopefully within a month or so) when we would be open. At that point, I sighed heavily thinking about hops.

Hops are short right now. Over the past 3-5 years, they have been short several times. The explosion of the American craft/home brewing market has lead to an enormous demand for hops that has created an unpredictable market for hop growers. Hops like Amarillo, Simcoe, Citra, Nelson Sauvin, and Galaxy (and any other newish hop that makes a good double IPA) sell out as soon as they are harvested.

North American hops are harvested in late August or early September. They are generally available in whole leaf form around October. Hop pellets (the form most commonly used by home and craft brewers) become available around November. Those timeframes are different for Southern hemisphere (Australia/New Zealand) hops and European hops. If you use your imagination, you can probably figure out when they are available.

Hops are primarily sold by major raw materials suppliers like HopUnion or Brewer’s Supply Group in two ways:

One option is to contract hops. Contracts often require a multi-year commitment but they guarantee the availability of varieties that might otherwise be hard to get. They also require the brewer to predict what they think they can brew and sell in a year. That might be easy for a company like New Belgium that uses a ton of hops but can afford to pay an analyst or three to run the numbers. For a startup, it’s a guess at best. One underrated advantage of contract hops is that the supplier will hold them until you are ready to accept delivery (more on this later).

The other way to buy hops is on the spot market. The spot market is basically the leftovers from the contracts. If you get in touch with the hop suppliers early enough after harvest (once they know their yields), you could possibly buy some good hops on spot. Even that is not guaranteed, and it’s not generally possible if you are ready to buy in February or March like we were. Please note that spot hops are delivered as soon as you pay for them.

Less common is for breweries to buy hops from other breweries or from third parties like homebrew suppliers. Sometimes these can be economical options. Other times, you’ll pay through the nose.

So what should a startup to do? I would suggest doing almost what we did.

When we decided we were serious about Odd13, I stopped brewing with Simcoe and Citra. I started brewing with hop varieties I thought I could get like Summit, Calypso, and Crystal. I mistakenly thought that varieties that were new and available to home brewers would be easy to get. Not true. I definitely learned from the experience, but it’s not exactly the strategy I’d recommend for a new professional brewery.

If you are considering starting a brewery, reach out to hop suppliers to figure out what is likely to be available when you are ready to buy on spot or sign a contract. Next begin experimenting with the hop varieties that are available. If you are a hophead brewer, you should actually have been doing this all along. For us, we should have been piloting Mosaic and Comet. We are going to pilot one of those this weekend.

Finally, if you need specific hops to open your brewery, buy them as soon as possible. In case you didn’t get this from my previous comments, spot hops sell out. If you are trying to open a brewery late in the crop year, you should be buying spots as soon as you get funded. Otherwise, you’ll be paying $20 a pound for hops that would sell for $10 a pound through one of the major suppliers.

Here are some of the hops we bought:

After we opened them, it looked like this:

Our freezer looked like this:

But we ran out of space, so both of our basement fridges looked like this: