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The Hops Shortage and Eating Locally

by Nic Darling on November 18, 2008 · 10 comments

in Philosophy

HopsI was reading through my current issue of Beer Advocate Magazine (yes, I was an inaugural subscriber), and I came upon an article that seemed to echo some of the things we have been discussing, particularly some of the comments on my post about the economy. Now, in order to understand the gist of this article and how it relates, some of you will need a little background. For those who are less interested (obsessed) with good beer and its production, you may be unaware of the hops shortage that has hit the industry. This shortage has caused an increase in beer prices, an adjustment of recipes and even a few closings of small breweries. The article in BA Magazine suggested that contrary to appearances, this shortage may actually be an agent of positive change.

Much like the way in which the gas shortage of the seventies and the recent high prices we have seen at the pump have begun to change our view on energy consumption, the hops shortage made brewers take a closer look at their supply chains. This has led to a movement toward localization for many craft breweries, including partnerships with local farmers to grow hops and grain in close proximity to their operations. This adjustment lowers the effect of price fluctuations, reduces the impact of transportation and allows breweries to have better quality control regardless of their relative size. It turns out there are great hop growing climates throughout the country that have gone unused as the model shifted toward large multinational producers. Now, with prices on the rise and scarcity threatening the brewing of great beers, the local grower is starting to look better and better.

The same thing seems to be happening, in a small way, to our food industry. As the cost of transportation rises, both monetarily and environmentally, we are seeing increased interest in local production. This has resulted in a growth in urban farming experiments (like Greensgrow in Philly) and local food sales. There is a balance, I think, between locally grown food and the global market, a balance that we swung dramatically past in our pursuit of centralized mega-farms and cheap, outsourced food production. What we are beginning to see might be described as a correction, a move toward regional sufficiency. And, while it may not be rational, or even sane, to expect a complete reversion to early agrarian practices, one can imagine a scenario where the local countryside once again provides a significant amount of food for the populated urban centers.

Unfortunately, the suburban boom has damaged the feasibility of such a shift. We have carved a good portion of the arable land around our cities into small, unproductive fiefdoms, over-shadowed by staggeringly out-sized, if moat-less, castles. The demand for land on which to erect McMansions and their ilk (McFortresses? McCitadels?), made farming in the areas outside the major cities economically untenable. Rather than grow wheat, beans, vegetables, cattle or, dare I say, hops, we have grown pavement, cul-de-sacs, manicured lawns and massive homes. In the process we have isolated ourselves from our food sources and stranded large portions of our population miles from the places they work, shop and learn. We have, it seems, managed our land resources badly.

With this in mind, I wonder if a real return to local food production is even possible. Can we make it economically feasible for farmers to operate on lands that are “local” to our cities even though that land is also in demand among those looking for the best in suburban living? If so, how much of a role does the current market play in that possibility? What might the government have to do to move us in this direction?

Or, am I way off base? Is this move toward localization a myth or even a mistake? And, what, incidentally, does this actually have to do with beer? Or, a better question . . . when can I have one?

What do you have to say? The best comment gets a pint on me next time our paths cross.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 5 trackbacks }

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Daily Koan » Think Gobally, Drink Locally
January 18, 2009 at 1:56 am

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jesse November 18, 2008 at 11:31 am

I appreciate how interconnected these things are. It underscores how our interests are informed by a root ideology. Sustainability, localization, responsible living. Whether its beer, buildings, transportation, or even entertainment, more people are seeking better versions of it.

Now as for the hop shortage, I think its a good thing that brewers are starting to look past huge double IPAs- the Mc Mansions of the beer world!!

2 Stephen Lyle November 19, 2008 at 10:11 pm

Good thoughts. But as someone in the food biz, (I own a restaurant) I unfortunately must report that now, more than ever, buying local is for the at least moderately wealthy. I can afford to buy some vegetables from Union Square that I feature in specials, but on the whole they are too pricey, and prices went up even higher this year. The cost of food unavoidably hits poor people the hardest, so it is difficult to argue that govenment should mandate more expensive food. It is also going to be unpopular to tell people in the North East all they get to eat in the winter are rutabagas.

I would argue for gently but ever increasing taxes on carbon spewing transportation fuel to get things to transition in the right direction. Food transported by electrically powered trains from clean sources would be cool. This happens in Europe..

3 Nic Darling November 24, 2008 at 11:21 am

Stephen – Excellent points. I agree that the cost of locally grown food remains prohibitive for most of us. The question is, can this cost be corrected?

I would certainly not suggest a government mandate to purchase locally, but perhaps an incentive to sell locally could be instituted. Maybe our farm subsidy program could be adjusted to subsidize growers who produce food for the local economy. This could make it cost-effective to continue farming on land the tract housing developers are buying up.

There is also a definite sense of entitlement when it comes to eating strawberries in January or mangoes in Maine. I don’t think this can or even should be fought ( I like a good mango). But, there is a balance that needs to be struck between local and global production. I think we should simply try to make local, in-season goods more affordable than those that require excessive storage and transportation. Your suggestion of increased transport costs may be part of that solution.

4 Nic Darling November 24, 2008 at 11:33 am

Jesse, thanks for the comment. I took a look at your blog and as a fellow lover of beer I’ll definitely be checking in again.

I agree that American craft breweries got a bit carried away with the “hop bomb” and for a while that seemed like the arena in which small brewers tried to make a name for themselves. The hop shortage has definitely had the positive effect of encouraging more varied experimentation. That said, I still love hops and the double IPA will always have a seat at my table.

Everyone, sorry about the slow response to comments this past week. Greenbuild was a bit of a distraction.

5 Nic Darling December 9, 2008 at 10:55 am

I almost forgot my promise of a beer for the best comment on this post.

Jesse, your comment was good and it was first, but it knocked Double IPAs. While that may have been valid, I am going to use it as an excuse to award my best comment pint to Stephen (I like hops). Besides, from reading your blog, it seems you get enough beer anyway.

Congrats Stephen. I always like a comment that demands a response. I don’t know when our paths might cross. But, when they do, I owe you a beer. Be sure to remind me.

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