Gigantic Brewing is relaunching their Ginormous Imperial IPA this summer as a rotating seasonal. Each new brew will highlight a new hop. Mark 1, on shelves now, features African Queen hops grown in South Africa. It’s a little surprising they were able to find enough. South African hops are currently in short supply.
In May, South African Breweries Hop Farms – the same SAB of SABMiller, recently merged with A-B InBev – told American buyers they would not be selling anymore hops to the American market this year. Of course, there were dozens of news stories from Food & Wine to Paste Magazine saying InBev was “commandeering” the whole hop market for themselves and their American breweries. In reality, it’s more complicated than all that.
SAB has a virtual monopoly on all hops and malt made in South Africa, and the region is in the middle of a long drought. According to SAB their yields have fallen and they have an obligation to sell hops to their African breweries first, and – as part of their monopoly – they are legally required to provide hops to small South African breweries. Local brewers have their own problems with the arrangement, but it’s not true AB is hoarding all the hops for their own High End brands.
American brewers – particularly Modern Times in San Diego, which was an early adopter of South African varieties – are rightly pissed. Many will have to reformulate recipes, but the bigger issue is fear that a super conglomerate like A-B/InBev/SABMIller/WTF could pull a similar move here in the States, crippling small brewers. It’s unlikely, but the South African example doesn’t bode well.
But the entire South African hop growing region only harvests 1000 metric tons, a small segment of that is exported, something like 40 tons. Last year, American hop farmers harvest something like 40,000 metric tons of hops. InBev’s massive buying power could hypothetically shift the supply of certain popular varieties, no doubt about that, but as Jeff Alworth pointed out, we’ve been here before.
Anheuser-Busch was once the biggest buyer of hops in Oregon, gobbling up 75% of the entire harvest. When A-B got a better deal elsewhere, they cut their contracts. Oregon growers were screwed. I doubt any one of them would enter into the same arrangement again. That is of course, assuming farmers grew the hops In-Bev brewers wanted. The majority of the hops currently grown in South Africa are high alpha acid varieties. They work great adding bitterness to just about any beer, but they are not the aroma hops everyone in the states is clamoring after.
The current trend is toward new and exotic flavors. Every autumn hop growers in America harvest experimental new varieties. Brewers test the waters with new hops with odd names, often just a string of letter and numbers. Some of those hops go on to become trademarked commodities, like Mosaic and Citra. Others are rarely heard from again. Southern Passion and African Queen are just the latest runners in this race for novelty.
The thing is, maybe these hops everyone is worried about aren’t even that good. I’ve only had two beers I can confidently say were brewed with African Queen hops. One of those was that new Ginormous IIPA up top and it’s not great. It’s got a really hard flavor, dense and jagged. It’s very green, very unripe. It could be the hops or the malt or the water, it could just be the beer, but I am getting no hint of flavor worth fighting over.
Wake me up when someone take away all the Cascade hops, all the Centennial. That I’ll get up in arms over. But that’s a terrifying and very unlikely future. More Cascade hops were grown in Oregon alone last year than all the varieties grown in South Africa combined. I think we’re safe.