The Hops Shortage and Eating Locally

I 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.