Local brewers adjust recipes to cope

Scott Butts makes beer for the four Wild River restaurants in Southern Oregon, including one in Medford. Until recently, he wouldn't think twice about tossing an extra handful of hops into the brewing kettle. Now, because of an industry-wide shortage of hops, he, like other local brewers, has had to adjust his practices.

His new policy? "No more extras," he says. "I only put in the amount that the recipes call for."

A cycle of bad news for brewers began in October 2006, when a warehouse fire in Yakima, Wash., destroyed about 5 percent of America's hops supply. Since then, hailstorms in hops-producing regions of Eastern Europe and droughts in Australia have made matters worse.

Large commercial breweries are known for going light on the hops, whereas craft breweries such as Wild River pride themselves on producing bold, well-hopped ales and other beers with lots of aroma and spicy flavor.

In addition to being less generous with his hops, Butts has been forced to find substitutes for varieties that are simply impossible to get right now.

For example, he once used Simcoe and Amarillo hops in his brewery's signature India Pale Ale. But they are hard to come by these days.

"Only a few people have noticed that I've changed the recipe," says Butts, "which tells me that I did a good job picking substitutes."

Adam Benson, head brewer for Standing Stone Brewing Co. in Ashland, says that hops selling for $5 a pound a year ago are typically going for $20 a pound now, and in some cases $30 or $40 a pound. He is immune to these spikes, though, because he locked into a two-year contract with his supplier.

The shortage has, however, forced him to curb his creativity.

"I have about six to eight varieties of hops to work with that are covered under the contract," he says. Considering that some hops handbooks list more than 100 different kinds, Benson's choices add up to a very limited palette.

In the past, he would spot-buy his hops if the urge to brew a specialty beer struck him, he says. But now those exotic hops might be unavailable or else too expensive to justify the whim, he says.

Benson is pleased that some Southern Oregon farms, including Hanley Farm in Central Point, have begun to grow hops. Not only will this bring an influx of product into the local market, but "it fits the policy at Standing Stone restaurant to use as many local ingredients as possible," he says.

The catch is that it could take three years for a crop to be ready for commercial use. That's why Benson is hoping that hops prices will level off at $10 to $15 a pound by the time his current contract expires.

Craft breweries have proliferated in recent years, leading some critics to charge that these breweries have brought the current crisis upon themselves. Jim Mills, owner and head brewer of Caldera Brewing Co. in Ashland, disagrees.

"Sure, there are more breweries now," he says, "but that isn't what's causing the shortage."

The problem that began with the Washington fire and severe weather across the globe has become more complex because of an array of factors, Mills says. For example, "the dollar sucks right now against the Euro, so Europeans are buying a lot of the American hops," he says.

Still, he has his supply of hops secured for the year, so operations are normal at his business, he says.

Ross Litton, owner and head brewer at Walkabout Brewing Co. in Central Point, also has all the hops he needs for the moment. Nonetheless, he is anxious, because he had to take out a loan to stock up on hops when he saw the shortage coming.

"Things are definitely a little tight," he says.

Beer drinkers are paying a little more for their brew than they were a year ago. According to Butts at Wild River, a case of his beer has gone up from about $22 to $25.

Can the breweries survive the shortage without pushing their prices even higher? Will local brewers eventually be forced to shift their focus, applying their talent to making less hoppy beers?

Indeed, Wild River has introduced an American light lager at its Cave Junction restaurant on a trial run. Litton at Walkabout foresees no such change in his game plan, however.

"Drinkers in the Northwest love their hops," he says.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

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