Today, the hop industry enjoys a popularity the likes of which it has never before enjoyed. Hop varieties appear on beer labels. Brewers swarm to hop farms at harvest time to catch a glimpse of hop harvest. Nearly the entire crop is contracted. Craft brewers talk of sustainability of the hop industry. On the surface, it would seem that the state of the hop industry has never been better. The truth is quite different. The hop industry sits at a point of equilibrium, something many have idealized for decades. Equilibrium has not brought stability and balance to the industry as the word might suggest. Instead, it brings uncertainty and the continuous fear of shortage. The state of the hop industry is fragile. Just beneath the surface the seeds of a potential crisis are being sewn.
Many larger craft brewers contracted significant amounts of hops for sustained growth in the craft beer market, which did not materialize. Fueled by the ambitious goals of 20% of the American beer market by 2020, craft brewers and hop industry members fell victim to confirmation bias. The craft industry has grown beyond anybody’s wild imagination in just 10 short years. The possibility of craft reaching 20% of the domestic beer market by 2020 is dead. Brewers contracted hops for that growth. Growers expanded infrastructure based on that projected growth. The hops contracted to reach that goal are no longer necessary. A fully contracted oversupply exists. Most craft brewers continue to honor their contracts in 2017. Most are working closely with merchants and growers to renegotiate more favorable conditions for future years to lessen the impact of a potential future surplus. The problem exists today, but there is good reason to believe that in the coming years continued growth in the craft industry will alleviate the pressure.
For anybody involved with hops for less than 10 years, this might seem like something new. To those who have been around a while, it’s like watching an old familiar movie again. They know how it ends, but hope the ending will be different this time. Craft brewers say they are interested in the sustainability of the hop industry. That attitude alone may make a difference. When times are good, it’s easy to talk that way. When money gets tight, will they abandon those ideals? Several craft brewers and smaller merchants are already showing their disregarding for contracts. If the ugly side of human nature takes over and hops once again become just a commodity sold to the lowest bidder, the movie will, again, end the way it has so many times before. Something is different in 2017.
In the aroma hop market in 2017, supply and demand are tracking well save for the recent decline in the growth of craft beer. Although the corresponding adjustment needed in the hop world today is less than ideal, it is not so dire as in the past. The difference is the growth. The worldwide preference toward craft beer continues to grow bringing a disproportionate demand for American aroma hops. That growth provides the unprecedented opportunity for the hop market to navigate the current situation avoiding extreme surplus and shortage and the price fluctuations of the past. We are, however, in uncharted territory. Anything is possible, but there are no guarantees.
The hop and craft market today is more segmented than ever before. Although many brewers are long on hops, there is not a surplus of hops in general. Many brewers still need to buy hops. Then there is the alpha market, which is on the verge of deficit. For craft brewers who were proactive and already renegotiated contracts, future supply problems are largely resolved. For those who chose to kick the can down the road or were not flexible, the options remaining are greatly reduced. Excess inventories from the 2015 and 2016 crops linger, but brewers are slowly working it into their production. Others are quietly selling their surplus, careful not to dump prices so as not to harm the hop market or the value of the inventory they purchased. We’re all hop merchants now.
If there enough hops, why are farmers planting more?
The simple answer is because there are breweries that still need hops. The market is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. Some merchants will not allow breweries that over bought to renegotiate contracts. Rather than shuffling existing inventory between the “haves” and the “have nots”, they keep contracts in place. They sign new contracts with new customers. In theory, there is nothing wrong with this, except that it delays the problem of dealing with excess inventory until another day. On paper, this creates the perception that sales are growing. This looks great to investors and banks. Sustaining massive lines of credit to finance hop inventory for longer periods, now commonplace among hop merchants, is the likely reason.
Brewers are also throwing up roadblocks in the renegotiation process. It takes two to tango after all. Brewers must be willing to let go of current inventory. Many are not. They must be willing to extend contracts further into the future in exchange for relief of current obligations and think they can dictate the terms of their contracts now that they don’t need the hops. Many don’t want to seek a compromise that works for both sides. They fear they will not find the varieties they need again so easily in the future and want to completely abandon the hops they contracted believing they can just buy them on the spot market for less. Every year, due to the hop industry producing at capacity, there are variety specific shortages and no way to predict from year to year which variety may be short as that depends largely on the weather. The certainty and stability of the supply of a variety is jeopardized while the market is so near the point of equilibrium, as it is today. When brewers move away from contracting, which is already happening, it leaves growers with no guide as to the varieties the market needs.
Prices for hops remain stable at a historically high level due to the cost of expanding infrastructure. Coincidentally, many breweries feel that pain too, having recently finished financing expansions of their own. The market for which they expanded, however, has not materialized meaning many will be laden with debt and producing below capacity. Revenue from beer sales has slowed in 2017 further restricting cash flow causing many brewers to withhold payment for hops until absolutely necessary.
Brewers’ lack of payment for contracted hops increases the costs and risks associated to carry each crop from the time it is produced until the time it is delivered. Despite the slowdown, growers still expect to be paid on time. Many brewers do not take this into consideration, or simply don’t care. If this additional expense continues, hop prices to brewers should increase. That is not likely to happen due to the competitiveness of the hop market. Prices, however, are also not likely to decrease anytime soon due to the additional expenses inherent in the industry today.
When perception is not reality
To a Koi in a shallow pond the world is very simple. She doesn’t perceive the world on the other side of the water. She may not even realize she is swimming in a manmade pond. Similarly, many brewers believe they understand the hop market. They are convinced hop prices will plummet soon because they hear oversupply exists. After all, that is how the market behaved in the past. That perception is overly simplistic. They see the market in two dimensions, supply and demand. The hop market has at least a few more dimensions. Cost of producing a crop and the debt associated with it provides depth to the picture. How the market behaves over time adds breadth. The increased complexity introduced by the larger number of players growing, selling and buying hops increases the randomness of the path forward making the path forward less predictable. Sustained growth and a state of equilibrium has never existed in the hop industry before and it is proving to be a very precarious place. 2017 will be a pivotal year for the hop industry. Beyond 2017, the future of the hop industry is murky and unpredictable.