Craft brewers aren’t just changing the beer industry, they’re having a noticeable impact on the nation’s farmers as well.
Craft breweries tend to use a lot more of the key brewing components per batch than large competitors like Budweiser and Coors. How much? A recent research report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that the average craft style beer uses between three and seven times as much malt per barrel as a mass market lager.
Malt comes from barley (grains are germinated, which frees up their sugars for fermentation). And that’s good news for farmers, who have seen barley prices fall by 50% since 2012. The problem is: U.S. farmers aren’t yet positioned to take advantage of the surge in demand.
Most craft brewers aren’t fiscally able to buy an entire field’s worth of barley, so rather than dealing directly with farmers, they go through merchants, who typically import European or Canadian malt, says Doyle Lentz, president of the National Barley Growers Association. That could be changing soon, though.
Farmers are already in the process of installing equipment to malt smaller batches to be able to cater to the craft world. The downside? It could be up to five years before they’re able to effectively compete.
“I think they’d like to work with us, but they don’t have the infrastructure to do that – neither of us do,” he says. “As we can start malting smaller batches for them, the [lower domestic] price will be something that interests them. Our hope is they’ll warm to a more local growing option as well.”
Meanwhile, as the consumer demand for hoppy IPAs continues to grow, so too have the prices for hops. In 2005, the average price per pound in the U.S. was $1.94. Last year it was $3.83 (a 14% jump over the 2013 average price).
That led farmers in 14 states (including Colorado, Michigan and New York) to begin planting hop plants for the first time in 2014 – which could lead to some interesting new flavors in beer.
“Hops are a lot like wine grapes,” says Ann E. George, administrator for Hop Growers of America. “You’ll have specific varieties grown in different regions that each have a different character.”
Curiously, the type of hops grown in America have changed in recent years, too. Not long ago, domestic farmers specialized in alpha hops, which give a beer its bitterness. This year, George says 70% of the crops will be aroma hops, which contribute more to the taste and nose of the beer.
Whether you like hops or barley, there are, of course, a plethora of choices when you reach for a craft beer. Here are some of our favorites.