Henry VIII once called hops a "wicked and pernicious weed," but they're crucial to the production of most beers, especially when it comes to "hoppy" India Pale Ales, or IPAs. In fact, more than 4,000 brewers are battling for less than a dozen popular hop varieties "like a bunch of wolves going after a carcass," Wicked Weed Brewing co-owner Luke Dickinson tells the Wall Street Journal. The result is a shortage of the weed even as its production continues to rise; farmland devoted to the crop has jumped 65% in the past five years alone, but the number of brewers has grown faster, doubling from 2,000 to 4,000 in that same period. Competition is so fierce, and hops so slow to mature (it takes the vines two to three years), that some brewers are forced to turn away thousands of barrels of beer orders.
Ironically, the resulting slowdown in craft beer production growth this year has farmers worrying about a coming glut of hops, not to mention a concern about how reliable all the new breweries will be two, three, four years down the road. This has farmers cautious even as demand outpaces supply. Further complicating matters is that craft brewers are looking for aroma hops to add flavor, not alpha hops that give Budweiser and Miller Lite their bitterness, resulting in a wide variety of new and niche hops, many of which have small orders. "To deal with a few boxes of this [variety] and few pellets of that is a real challenge," says Diane Gooding of Gooding Farms in Idaho. And then there's climate change, reports Slate, with hot weather in Europe destroying huge hop harvests, which could lead to pricier beers. (Pumpkins have caused brewers headaches, too.)