The 2014 harvest is only a few weeks away.  Already we know that there will not be enough of some the most popular proprietary hop varieties … again. The problem is not that more of them can’t be grown. The problem is also not that growers don’t want to grow more. Prices aren’t an issue because some of the most popular aroma varieties can command a very healthy price and brewers seem willing to pay those prices, no questions asked.  Production of the most popular proprietary aroma varieties is limited intentionally by the people who own the rights to those varieties.  It’s not limited with the intention of driving up price.  It’s limited because they don’t want to make those varieties available to the industry at large and they can’t handle all the production necessary.  Instead they try to tightly control production and/or sales through specific companies.  Public varieties, which are available to anybody who wants to grow and/or sell them, don’t have this problem. Unless the situation with availability to freely grow proprietary varieties changes, the availability of those proprietary varieties to brewers is not likely to improve. Why would somebody commit such a heinous crime you may ask? The interests of the brewing or hops industries as a whole are not among the reasons.
The hop industry is small and a lot of the players are closely related.  There are old families that have been in the industry 100 years … think Godfather without the olive oil.  There are also groups of growers who cooperate together and against other groups to try to advance their own agenda … again, think Godfather, but without the fancy suits and machine guns.  Some families’ arms reach far and wide and their fingers are in a lot of pies.  
I mention this because usually there aren’t too many degrees of separation between the grower, the breeder and the merchant company selling the hops. In some cases, they’re one in the same. That can be good and bad.  When supply is kept lower than demand though … that’s bad.  This is done by merchants to try to lure brewers into the web of a merchant company so they can lock in customers they may not otherwise be able to get or keep.  I guess that’s their competitive advantage … and, as they say, business is business.  Fair enough.  That’s a pretty douchey move, and risky in an age when social media enables people to share their thoughts so easily.  It’s a move that has played well during the previous 10 years, but it won’t play well during the next 10.  The demand for those varieties won’t last forever as more new varieties are created every year by many different players diluting the popularity for any one in particular.  Brewers will be drawn toward new and different attainable varieties when they can’t get the varieties they want.  We’ve seen that happen first hand.  To use an agricultural analogy … “you have to make hay while the sun is shining”.  The owners of some proprietary varieties are missing the chance to maximize sales, and therefore revenue, by limiting production and sales outlets.  To put all your eggs in one hop basket and assume that will keep working indefinitely, is short sided to say the least.
Unfortunately, the same companies in control of the most elusive proprietary varieties don’t seem to understand or can’t handle the growth currently happening in the industry and definitely don’t understand the scope of the demand for the great varieties they have created. That is why those varieties are in short supply today.  You can imagine the varieties I’m talking about and you probably can guess the companies involved so I won’t mention them here. If the people in question believed in a free market, where any growers could buy and produce proprietary varieties for a royalty fee and sell them to whomever they choose, instead of trying to hoard sales for themselves and control it, we would not be seeing variety shortages today. To be fair there are a couple companies selling proprietary varieties in the way we’ve suggested.  It works and there are no shortages of those varieties.  The variety shortages we have today are evidence of a very top down strategy, something that might fit nicely in North Korea.  After the fall of the Communism in the Soviet Union, however, I think most people understand that central planning doesn’t work very well.
The creators of proprietary varieties should be well compensated and praised for all their hard work to create such amazing varieties for the market.  It’s an expensive, time consuming and risky job with no promise of any return on the initial investment.  Ironically the creators of the most popular varieties should be criticized, however, for their management of bringing those varieties to market.  They are not allowing the demand for the amazing hop varieties they have created to be filled.  Maybe they’re afraid to share the benefits of their creations with anybody else.  Maybe they really just don’t care about shorting the market.  That could all be fixed by allowing any growers who wants to grow proprietary varieties to buy the roots and pay a royalty fee for the variety in question, which, ironically, would make them more money.  They could easily pass along the cost of a reasonable royalty to their customers, whether they are grower direct sales, or through other merchants.
I’m sure if enough of you would like to see more proprietary varieties on the market we can make a difference!!  Do you think proprietary varieties should be more widely available for anybody?  I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts and comments on twitter and add #freethehops so we can all participate … or share the link to this blog article to spread the word. 
Stay tuned for another post with a crop report by the end of the month.