LAST SEASON'S disastrous hops shortage has sparked a run on rhizomes, the planted stems that grow into towering, hop-bearing bines.
Homebrewers and, remarkably, some small breweries are buying up hop rhizomes in a new wave of do-it-yourself farming of one the key ingredients of beer. The plants are becoming so scarce this spring that some would-be growers have resorted to buying them on eBay at marked-up prices.
"There's definitely a panic out there, because brewers can't buy the hops they need," said Dave Wills, an Oregon hops supplier who said his rhizome sales increased 400 percent this year.
"Brewers don't want to be at the whim of big [hops] dealers," Wills said. "So now some of them are looking into growing their own."
In central Pennsylvania, for example, brewers Ryan Richards and Jesse Rotz have spent the past weeks planting 200 hop rhizomes on a family farm near Gettysburg.
"I'm not expecting very many hops in the first year," said Richards, who expects to open Roy Pitz Brewing in Chambersburg in June. "But hopefully after the second year, we'll have significant yield that we can use for our own beer, plus trade and sell online."
The green, conelike hop flowers are the spice of beer, providing bitterness, flavor and aroma. Their production is controlled mainly by agricultural cartels in several distinct regions around the world, including Germany, the Czech Republic, China and the northwestern United States.
Most of the new generation of hops growers are homebrewers, hobbyists with a bit of backyard space for the sprouts.
The plants take little space and grow quickly (a foot or more per week), winding skyward around strings or trellises. Typically, it takes three years till the plant produces at full capacity, perhaps two pounds of fresh hops on a single bine. That's plenty for a batch or two of homebrew, where homegrown hops are used primarily for their aroma.
"It's pretty natural for a homebrewer to want to grow his own ingredients," said Bryan Kolesar of Malvern, who planted several rhizomes with his neighbor, Adam Beck. "You're not going to grow your own barley or wheat in the backyard, but you can definitely grow your own hops."
Jason Harris at Keystone Homebrew Supply in Montgomeryville said he sold about 600 hop rhizomes last year. This year he ordered 1,200 and sold them all at $4.50 each before ordering another 700. "The orders are coming in fast," said Harris. "I've been sending them to California, Texas - all over the place."
Most of that surge is undoubtedly due to last year's hop shortage, brought about by bad weather, increased demand and a continuing shift of farmland to more lucrative cash crops, including corn for ethanol.
The shortage spiked hops prices by more than 300 percent and prompted some small brewers to discontinue some styles of beer.
Several small brewers reported they were unable to make some styles of beer because they were unable to purchase needed supplies at any price.
While industry observers believe the hops crisis is short-term, the scare led a number of small brewers to consider raising their own.
Indeed, some microbrewers have already pulled on their overalls. In California, the Sierra Nevada, Bear Republic and Moonlight breweries all own hops farms that supplement their supplies.
Orlando Segura of Milwaukee's Lakefront Brewing said his brewery has begun planting organic hops at two farms in Wisconsin, partly to avoid the difficulty of importing them from New Zealand.
"The whole idea is to become more local," Segura said. "Our goal is to revive the entire hops industry in the Midwest . . . The potential is there and the willingness is there - not just from the beer producers, but a lot of farmers are interested, too."
What's not there, however, is the infrastructure. Commercial hops farming requires costly, specialized harvesting equipment and drying kilns.
For now, the solution is as old as farming itself: raw manpower and lots of beer.
Come harvest, Richards and Rotz of Chambersburg will round up all their friends, drag a keg out onto the field and pick the hops by hand.
Richards conceded, however, the task of persuading the pickers "is going to get a bit trickier as we grow."
Grow your own
Hop rhizomes are still available at Home Sweet Homebrew (2008 Sansom St., Center City) and Keystone Homebrew Supply (779 Bethlehem Pike, Montgomeryville).
They grow best in full sun with moist soil. Give them plenty of room to sprout skyward, either on trellises or string. While some hop varieties fare poorly in the humid East, local growers report that the popular Cascades variety does very well.
Hops can be used either fresh or dried in homebrews. *