Changes Afoot in the Hop Fields

Last week, the Hop Growers of America released their annual crop report, and it was full of interesting details. Agricultural reports may not seem like the most interesting subject matter, but given how much our little green friends dominate our favorite beers, there's a lot here to ponder. Let's start with the topline message:

U.S. acreage has grown 75.5% in just four years. In 2012, USDA-NASS reported the total U.S. acreage was 29,683. For 2016, acreage amplified to 52,963.... To put it into perspective, the U.S. acres added in the last 5 years is larger than the total acreage of any other hop-growing country in the world, outside of our own and Germany, the two largest hop-producing countries.
— Hop Growers of America 2016 Report

This radical transformation is entirely the result of craft brewing, and in particular the focus on hoppy American ales. After last year's report, I pointed out that the growth came not just in overall acreage, but among those hop varieties that infuse hoppy American ales:

Ten years ago, over three-quarters of all the hops grown in the U.S. were just four varieties: Zeus (21 percent), Willamette (21 percent), Columbus/Tomahawk (18 percent) and Galena (17 percent). Three of those are “high-alpha” (high bitterness potential) strains, which big breweries use to reduce costs. To take it a step further, those hops categorized as “aroma” hops (meaning generally lower bitterness potential) now account for three-quarters of all hop acreage. There are just over 40,000 acres of aroma hops under cultivation—more than all the hops grown as recently as three years ago.

The report updates these numbers with a wonderful graph that shows you how much the production has shifted from bittering hops to aroma hops in recent years.

Current Trends
On to 2016. The first finding: we're going to have to stop talking about commercial production being limited to the Pacific Northwest. Ten years ago, the three hop-producing states constituted 100% of US production. Now 28 states are dabbling in hop farming, and six states have more than 100 acres under cultivation. Non-Northwest production is up to 4%, grew by 65% last year, and a few states are starting to have substantial production:

State, acres (2016 growth)
Michigan: 650 (103%)
New York: 300 (20%)
Wisconsin, 297 (75%)
Colorado: 200 (60%)

These are still not big numbers; Idaho, the smallest of the big three, grows 5,600 acres. Still, Michigan has a square mile under cultivation and is approaching a million pounds of hops. As a toehold for future growth, that ain't bad.

In terms of which hops are popular and which are growing, I'm not going to shock you. Anyone who drinks IPAs on a regular basis could tick off two or three of these instantly. (Unfortunately, the report doesn't list the varieties under cultivation in these smaller states.) Here are your big gainers for 2016:

Variety, acres (2016 growth)
Azacca: 506 (189%)
El Dorado: 396 (63%)
Citra: 4,494 (50%)
Mosaic: 2,525 (40%)
Simcoe: 4,331 (31%)

The report also has a handy pie chart illustrating the most popular hops. Although they're growing more slowly, Cascades start from a large base and are still the champeen American hops. CTZ, or Columbus, Tomahawk, and Zeus, are high-alpha bittering hops, and although they still constitute a sizable chunk of total production, they declined 15% last year. Chinooks, already in danger of falling off this chart, are also in decline. They were an early high-alpha cultivar, and to the extent they're lingering, seem to be doing so because of their transition to being known as a good dry-hop variety.

The upshot is clear: hop acreage is being driven by aroma varieties, and the biggest gainers are popular, new-wave aroma hops. This means we'll continue to see hop companies introduce new, proprietary strains as often as they can develop them to meet the ever-expanding hunger for new flavors and aromas to infuse IPAs. That means beer drinkers will see new, interesting and exotic flavors in their beers for years to come. And that is what you call a virtuous cycle.