Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hopping on hops, Part 2

Here’s an update on Weyerbacher’s hop-growing efforts in Easton, Pa.

Owner Dan Weirback says the 500 Nugget and 1,000 Cascade rhizomes they set out on an acre of land are indeed part of the brewery’s long-range thinking to address the current hop shortage. By the by, the pictured hop cone was cribbed from Wikipedia's entry.

Weyerbacher is one of those breweries that works in hops (and malts) like painters work in oils, achieving textures, tones and overall complexity. Some examples: Simcoe Double IPA, Eleven Triple IPA, Hops Infusion IPA. When you pump up beers like they do, hops gain some added importance.

Planted two weeks ago, Weyerbacher’s hops so far are taking root, and the brewery is using a drip irrigation method recommended by Rutgers University. The Nuggets (a bittering hop) are leading the way over the Cascades (all-purpose hop), and Dan estimates a combined yield this fall of about 100 to 500 pounds for use in a new, special pale ale or IPA.

The brewery will have to settle for a harvest by hand, something agriculture folks see as less than ideal. But enough volunteers and friends have committed to help, and Dan’s confident the job can get tackled over perhaps a weekend.

These first-season hops will get used “wet,” meaning the traditional drying process will be skipped. Some brewpubs and breweries, Dan says, have been experimenting with hops right off the vine, and have noted a fresher flavor in the brews.

In two or three years however, Dans says, the brewery will probably look to get its hands on some drying equipment. (The Rutgers research farm that grew hops in its demonstrations used an old tobacco dryer.) By then, Weyerbacher’s crop yield could be 2,000 pounds. That may sound like a big number, but Dan thinks it's quite manageable for the brewery.

So how far can Weyerbacher take this idea? Well, they have 15 acres available for planting, and Dan estimates five acres could supply the brewery.

But they may just be content at having the flexibility to help offset hop-supply needs, especially in unfavorable market times.

Exactly how long the current shortage and ensuing price spike will last is anyone’s guess. “It could be a two-year blip, but it could also be five years,” Dan says.

China, Russia and India are all now producing more beer than ever before, he says. Stir that in with the recent bad harvest, acreage taken out of production and trend for hoppier beers and you get an idea of the ripples affecting the supply picture.

The good news for brewers is that Pacific Northwest growers increased acreage this spring by 25 percent.

Still, though we like Weyerbacher's ounce of prevention, and hope they can reap many pounds of cure.

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