Ah, Europe. The birthplace of many modern types of beer and the motherland of cultivated hops. The first documented hop cultivation is from 936 in the Hallertau region of present-day Germany, an area that remains important in the global hop-growing outlook. In fact, according to the Brewers Association, 80-90% of Germany’s hops came from Bavaria in 2015 (and most from Hallertau, a mere 180 square kilometer area). Overall, Germany produces 60% of Europe’s hop crop and holds about one-third of the world’s hop-growing acreage, says the European Commission for Agriculture and Rural Development.
For years now, the USA and Germany have traded the number one spot atop highest hop-producing countries. Many things have shifted in the past decade, however, mostly resulting from changing demands for higher-alpha varieties (a symptom of the IPA craze and an overall global increase in beer production). Climate change and corresponding agricultural conditions have also been players in big alterations across the globe and especially in continental Europe. While the vast majority of American hops are grown in spacious, sparsely-populated highland-desert microclimates, most with ready access to large and relatively stable sources of water as well as modern irrigation equipment, Europe has a whole different level of stresses on resource management and agricultural needs, with hard limits on acreage expansion and far more densely populated nearby regions, demands on water rights and overall quality. Washington state has enjoyed an abundance of water for decades, producing the majority of the nation’s hydroelectric power. Although as Washington State’s Department of Ecology says, “water availability is no longer a luxury.” With recurring droughts in Washington, Oregon, California and the Southwestern US, water allocation has become much more carefully managed.
Again, global interest and demand for higher-alpha varieties has lead Germany to make big changes in acreage allotment, swapping older “noble” hops like Hallertau Mittelfruh for bigger alpha-acid hops like Herkules. The risk of losing availability to landrace noble hops necessary for classic styles is indeed a cause for potential alarm, but as Germany increases production of high-alpha hops, the US has been steadily gaining acreage in lower-alpha aroma-type hops. It’s important to understand that acreage choices can change year to year, and are often results of the whole market across the globe, although Germany and Washington’s Yakima Valley are obviously the greatest agricultural influencers. Germany exports roughly one third of its hops to Russia and a large amount to Japan–both beer markets that have a different beer consumer than the US and thus will have correspondingly different demands.
Beyond all of the earlier points I’ve mentioned, exchange rates, nearby consumer trends, and focus on local availability are all factors that add into this whole equation. While newer producers like New Zealand and South Africa are spending their energy on development and a strong entrance into the hop marketplace, the more constrained regions with a longer history of large-scale production and exportation necessarily seek a more delicate balance. Agricultural choices within hop farming in turn fuel brewery product choices–it’s continually fascinating to witness and attempt to unpack the overall national and global beer market. Cheers to you and all your hops, Germany.