The guys at the end of the bar didn't come into the Tampa Bay Brewing Company to gripe about the rising price of hops, and consequently beer.
Nope, Josh Dixon and the rest on the bar stools in Ybor City already knew. They were there for a pint or two of ESB and Jack the Quaffer porter, or maybe the Wild Warthog Weizen.
They brew their own at home, know good beer requires hops and both require money, about 50 cents more a glass and hundreds of dollars per tank.
They already know that hops are scarce worldwide from Australia to the Balkans, forcing higher prices for hops in all forms. An ounce of pelletized hops that sold for $1.50 is now $2.75. The hops brewers buy in 10-pound sacks went from a few dollars to more than $100. The finished product also increased in price: a glass of craft draft from $4 to $4.50; bottle six-packs and barrels jumped too.
Others might not call it a crisis but true-brew beer lovers and brewers have pitched in with sacrifice and mutual aid during troubled times.
Home brewers who go to Beer and Winemakers' Pantry in Pinellas Park are under hops rationing, 3 ounces per batch.
And Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Co., the maker of Samuel Adams, has come to the rescue of his smaller brethren: He has offered to share 20,000 pounds of extra hops he bought in Germany and England with craft brewers in need.
The spice of beermaking
For beer drinkers who don't follow hops, the current crisis is a brisk lesson in brewing, agriculture and world trade.
Beer is made of water and three other ingredients, malted grain (from noble barley to wheat, rice and corn) hops and yeast.
The main players are the malt and the hops. The very complex chemistry can be translated simplistically as a sweet-sour partnership with malt and hops on opposite ends of the seesaw.
The hops are soft buds, like pine cones from the female of an amazing plant that races up 30 feet in a summer, like Jack's fairy-tale beanstalk. At one time they grew across the temperate — and beer-drinking — world from Eastern Europe to the U.S. Midwest and West Coast.
Hops are the smaller of the two main ingredients — Dave Doble, who oversees brewing at the Tampa Bay Brewing Company, uses perhaps 10 pounds of hops and 700 pounds of malt for a 10-barrel batch. But they add much: clarity to color, a bit of extra life, lots of aroma, and yes, a tartness that is measured in International Bitter Units, or IBU.
Thus hops are the spice of beermaking, giving the brew a characteristic style and nationality. Every craft beer brags on its hops, from Cascade and Centennial to European Tettnang, Hallertau and Styrians.
If Doble makes an English ale, he'd like East Kent Goldings hops. "I like my beers to be as authentic as possible and to do that takes authentic ingredients.''
Bitterness, however, depends on national taste. What the English call Extra Special/Strong Bitter, or ESB, actually has a low level of hops compared with continental beers.
Mainstream U.S. lagers rank around 10 to 12 IBU but critics suspect they are even lower. Even so, the big brands are likely to boost their prices too.
Most craft brewers like Doble and Michael Bryant at Dunedin Brewery use a whole lot more hops. Doble estimates that his beers average an IBU rating of 40, from a modest True Blonde Ale to a hefty Old Elephant's Foot Indian Pale Ale (IPA) and a very sharp barleywine.
So when Doble arrived at the brewery with a 10-pound bag of hops, he clutched it tightly. "This used to cost me $2, now it's $200.''
Such price increases were caused by more than a perfect storm. There were a few of those literally: Hail cut down almost half the crop in Slovenia, floods cut back other European hopyards, and Australia had droughts.
All of this came after decades of surplus that had lowered prices so much that many hops farmers turned to other crops, eliminating many English growers and cutting the U.S. hops farms to less than 50.
But demand shot up. Sure more Americans are lifting glasses of handcrafted stout, and home brewing has boomed, but they are exceeded by new brewers and drinkers in China where beer is becoming the alcoholic beverage of choice. They, the storm-struck Europeans and Americans waving a weaker dollar all compete for a smaller pile of hops and will for the next two years.
And that doesn't consider the rising cost of most other ingredients: The price of malted grain is going up, as well as flour, glass bottles and the rest.
Though some brewers and brew pubs laid in stores ahead of time, most are scrambling for new sources of hops, especially those strains with more punch, or rejiggering recipes.
Others may brew fewer high-hops beers in their lines. Certainly home brewers will lean away from heavily hopped beers, said Mary Traina at the Beer and Winemaker's Pantry.
"Imperial IPAs are pretty much not going to be happening right now,'' she said, because they take more than the 3 ounces of hops she'll allot per 5-gallon recipe.
Yet innovation is as traditional in brewing as hops. Brewers decided hops was best but in new and old times of no hops, they have used other spices, from pine and rosemary to lemongrass.
Scotch ale brewed and drunk today is low in hops, Doble said, because "the Scots used heather when the Brits set a high tax on hops.''
"I think the craft brewers today are a pretty innovative lot,'' he added.
Perhaps the human beermaking imperative won't be denied. Beer drinkers and hops-
heads will have to pay for this lesson, but $5 for a good ale is likely cheaper than many wines by the glass.
And the education in the glass will be refreshing.
Chris Sherman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8585.