Musings Main JF

My name is John, I’m an award-winning brewer and opened my own brewery in Devon in the UK in 2015. This blog is my unfiltered thoughts on brewing, business and my search for the good life – a random mix of technical info, aimless ponderings and propaganda for Thinkers and Drinkers.

Hopping Mad

A view from the truly ‘craft’ end of the brewing spectrum as the UK hop supply goes awry.

Over the past 40 years or so, the UK’s small breweries have fought tooth and nail to re-establish such things as choice, quality and localism in the beer market. In the 1970s, big breweries had become entirely dominant and revelled in the opportunity to exploit the market with cheaply produced approximations of beer.

Over the next forty years the UK microbrewery scene blossomed. Fed up with anaemic beer, and spurred on by CAMRA, drinkers turned to microbreweries to find a pint worth drinking. Now there are over 1,000 breweries in the UK that, between them, have produced over 10,000 different beers in that period. Beer drinkers have been spoilt for choice.

In the past few years, beer has moved on again. Craft beer (to me a vague and poorly defined label, but used for want of a better term) has emerged and is pushing the boundaries of beer in the UK.  There are over 100 styles of beer listed in the Brewers Association’s Beer Style Guidelines. Up until about five years ago, in the UK we were producing about 10 of them. Today, with a bit of leg work, you can probably find a British-brewed version of almost all of them.

All of which is to say that, while the big breweries continued to churn out the same old same old, microbrewers were busy innovating and have built up a truly magnificent selection of beers, a beer scene we can all be rightly proud of.

But now the microbrewers are under threat again. How can that be? Surely the tide is turning? Up until now, microbrewers were definitely on the up, but now trouble looms once more. The reason?

Hops.

Hops are at the heart of many craft beers. While the big guns were still wallowing in Goldings best bitters and bland lagers, the little guys were experimenting with new hop strains that have bought entirely new favours and styles to beer. And for the past few years drinkers have been lapping them up – craft beer has become the fastest growing sector in the UK food and drink market.

These new hop strains have never been abundantly available, but nonetheless if a small brewer wanted to get hold of some, you generally could. In 2014, in the US alone, 45,000 acres of farming were dedicated to hop growing, and there are also hops being grown in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, throughout Europe, even Japan on a large scale. There should be enough hops to go round.

Now here’s the problem.  Hops are in such demand that brewers have to contract stocks in advance. For small breweries that’s enough of an issue in itself. How can a small, growing brewery possibly predict what its hop usage will be in 18 months time?  At anything up to £25 a kilo, and using on average using around 15kg of hops per brew, it’s financially impossible for us to spot-buy enough stock at the front end of the season and dangerous to commit ourselves to contracts we may not fulfil.

But this year things have changed again, and now there are simply no hops to contract at all. 2015 has seen all the big UK breweries move in to the ‘craft’ beer market. They have seen their sales fall and are repositioning to take advantage of where the growth is.  They want in on the action, regardless of the fact that they are in no way ‘craft’, by any definition. Undeterred, all of the big national and international breweries have started releasing ‘craft’ beers.  And people are falling for it all over again – landlords and drinkers alike.

These industry giants can strong-arm any supplier into working with them. The UK’s hop merchants, lured by the easy money of big business, are abandoning the small brewers.  Instead of feeding the small end of the industry – those brewers that have reinvigorated beer, made it worth drinking again, that have fuelled the growth the hop dealers themselves have enjoyed –  they are now leaving us in the lurch, hop-less and hope-less.

In 2015, Powderkeg Brewery was able to contract 150kg of Citra hops. A small drop in the ocean, but enough for us. For 2016, we need about twice as much, but have been offered a measly 10kg. We have been told that is the most ‘fair’ the hop merchant can be. 10kg is barely enough for one brew.

Where have all the good hops gone? The old guard, those ruiners of all things good, have hoovered up the lot, regardless of whether they need them all or not.  And the hop merchants have enthusiastically gone along for the ride. I believe this is disingenuous on the part of the hop merchants – fast cash today at the expense of the growth of the craft beer scene that they have been thriving on. Suppliers to the industry need to re-think why it is that their hops are in such demand – who was it who created that demand, why craft beer sales have been booming, and how they can continue to do so.

To me it is the first insidious step towards a return to the dark days of a handful of big breweries dominating the market. Craft beer breweries will still innovate, will still survive, but that which we have built is being taken from us and exploited by big business. It might seem a fair and open market on the shop shelves, but starved of our key ingredients, many small brewery beers won’t ever make it that far.

We all know what happens when the big breweries dominate the market – we saw it in the ‘70s and it wasn’t pretty. That mustn’t happen again. The work of the past 40 years to re-establish British beer must not go to waste as people fail to see through a new mask on the same old ugly faces.

 

On Starting a Brewery

Breweries are cool. Most people who love beer have considered opening their own brewery at some stage. What’s not to like? You’re working for yourself, producing something tangible with your own hands, spreading happiness through a mutual vice and drinking beer at breakfast time. It’s all very positive.
As a result, everyone’s having a go. In the UK, there are now well over a thousand breweries in operation, with around 100 new enterprises opening each year. Altruistically: Hooray for them all. Selfishly: That’s a lot of competition.

Of course, beer is also going through something of a renaissance. Sales of craft beer and real ale from local independent breweries are constantly on the rise, while the corporate behemoths slowly crumble in the face of innovation and taste offered by us little guys. And good riddance to them, they have plagued us for far too long.

Beer deserves the respect given to it by small producers. Most of the stuff churned out by the big guns has all the hallmarks of the ‘Victory’ product range in Orwell’s 1984 – low quality piss for the masses; an apparent pleasure with all of the joy taken out of it; a placebo for freedom.

As such, to me, the first and very best reason for starting a brewery has to be to make good beer. Otherwise, what’s the point? But don’t get me wrong – I’m not so naive as to think that loving beer and being a good brewer is enough to win the day. The brewery has to work as a business, otherwise I’ll be straight back working for the man, and that’s the last thing I want. More on that later though, let’s start gently.

For now, let’s say that this blog is for people who are interested in beer and brewing, but also have a brain. ‘For Thinkers and Drinkers’ as the tagline goes. The story is about beer, brewing and small breweries and there will be all sorts of quality beer-related information, indispensable in its own right. But the sub-plot is about thinking outside the box, personal revolution and challenging the status quo. A lofty ambition admittedly, but we’ll see how we go.

  8 comments for “Musings

  1. kevin nutt
    19th November 2015 at 6:53 pm

    thank`s for your interesting info. regarding the behaviour of the big breweries, I had a couple of pints of speak easy at the Wall Tavern in Exeter recently, We have to stand up and be counted again against the commercial behaviour through Camra, their behaviour regarding buying up the hops , do we have a way of nipping this in the bud, by taking the hop producers into the arms, and umbrella of Camra. Hoping { pun intended ) we can do this , and save micro breweries from the 1984 effect .
    Yours Kevin Nutt .

    • johnpowderkeg
      20th November 2015 at 9:50 am

      I think you’re right Kevin – between CAMRA and/or SIBA the small breweries need some protection on this issue, perhaps a buying co-op or similar. Better to nip these problems in the bud – the signs are there. Clearly there is also a job here for beer drinkers – We all benefit from the diversity offered by smaller breweries so continue to support them. But equally, is everybody really going to fall for the frankly insulting ‘craft beer’ labels being put on beers from giant nationals and multinationals?! On that front we’re formulating a plan, for Devon at least – watch this space!

    • Paul
      1st June 2016 at 3:37 pm

      Hi John
      I couldn’t agree more with your hop related comments. As a new start up micro in west Devon we have already had to change one of our beers because of zero availability of a particular variety. The big boys don’t like us because we can be innovative, we can change direction quickly and are building up a good strong local following.
      I guess it’s chin up and keep on brewing and stay one step ahead- or at least try!
      Cheers
      Paul
      Moorstone Brewery

      • johnpowderkeg
        6th June 2016 at 11:01 am

        Hi Paul
        thanks for your comments, wish it wasn’t a post which resonated with so many people, but it seems to be hitting a lot of small breweries hard. Something’s gotta give!

    • 11th January 2017 at 12:00 pm

      Well Done I am local and enjoy both homebrew and country wine making. i will try your products soon. Sounds like you need to use your qualifications to plant improved local hop plants. cant believe the price of hops from homebrewers. Liquid Asets is now defunct by the way in Honiton.
      Good luck
      Steve Woodbury Salterton

  2. Rich
    8th July 2016 at 12:55 am

    Hey John
    Greetings from NZ! I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve got friends who like beer down here. If I can be of any assistance in tracking down any NZ hops for you to put to good use, I’m more than happy to help.
    Cheers, Rich
    P.S. Pics of the Bristol pubs making me feel homesick!

    • johnpowderkeg
      20th October 2016 at 11:27 am

      Thanks Rich, we are still receiving our beloved hops at the moment, but if the supply like dries up we’ll let you know. Sadly Powderkeg won’t be making it’s away across the world for a while yet, we’re still concentrating on the west country at the moment!
      Still you’ve got some pretty good tipples down there these days, right?

  3. 2nd June 2017 at 12:08 pm

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but
    after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say excellent blog!

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