Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Why Proprietary Hops?

Why do crafties buy proprietary hops? Are they better than the publicly owned varieties? Lower priced? More available? Easier to store? Do crafties know the difference between proprietary and publicly owned varieties? Does it matter?

Let's break this down. The major proprietary hops include Amarillo, Ahtanum, Simcoe, Warrior, CTZ and Citra. "Proprietary" means that the owner of the invention (ie, the hop rhizomes and flowers) is empowered to restrict access to the public (ie, the growers and suppliers) unless the latter have agreed to abide by licensing agreements which involve the payment of royalties.

The more popular private varieties are the property of a handful of suppliers in the Yakima, Washington area. Most of these owners are also hop suppliers. As such, they enter into production contracts with growers. As capitalism dictates, to recoup R&D costs (who knows how much) and bring home a respectable profit, they are likely to want to grow their own hops.

Where am I going? Read on. I read recently in "The New Brewer" the following asserted facts:

*There are an estimated 75 hop varieties world wide.

*About 77% of all US hops are grown in Washington, 16% in Oregon.

*"One-third of US hops are proprietary hops (must be licensed to grow them)." Herz, "The Romance of Hops," The New Brewer, Nov/Dec 2009, p.16.

This last figure jumped out at me. Hmmm. More than a third of all hops are grown in the Yakima area, and about 30% of the hops grown in the US are proprietary. And nearly all of the major suppliers are located in Yakima.

Now, we've all read the profile of your average craft brewer: rebellious, crafty, innovative, wonky, intermittently cranky, and fiercely independent. The archetypal US crafty will push the envelope to brew new and exciting brews and will violently push back against any attempt to stifle that creativity.

And yet, the following observation has been nagging at me. I've walked the floors of many craft breweries lately. On each tour I've poked my head inside the coolers, mainly to recon the varieties present as well as the suppliers. Naturally, my eye has been trained to associate a hop variety with a supplier.

Now this is anecdotal and I would surely burn in Hell were I to extrapolate from the crumbs of evidence gleaned from these random tours any righteously rigorous conclusions, but I have noticed, shall we say, the faint whiff of an association.

The boxes of Simcoe, CTZ, Amarillo, Warrior, etc always seem to come from the same supplier. The association has become so tight that when a brewer tells me who is supplier is I can fairly predict the hops he uses.

What does this mean? Does it mean that the proprietary hops are better than the publicly owned varieties? Let's look at that. Over a 30 year period, the USDA-ARS hop labs at Oregon State in Corvallis pumped out at least 20 hop cultivars. Each new progeny, for the most part, was bred from the original European noble grand-daddies. Check out the OSU-USDA hop cultivar pedigree chart here. The breeder behind most of the US hop noble "mimics" before 1995 was Dr. Al Haunold.

For example, from Hallertauer Mittlefrueh rootstock, Dr. Haunold and his team fashioned all-stars like Liberty, Mt. Hood, Crystal and Ultra. From Saazer" Sterling. From Tettnanger: Santiam (by the way, Dr. Al has advised that "US Tettnanger" is actually Fuggle). From Fuggle: consistent heavyweights like Willamette, Columbia, Cascade, Horzion and others.

All pretty good stuff. All bred to thrive in the Pacific Northwest, most suited for pest/disease resistance and good yields in Oregon's Willamette Valley. And all publicly owned. That means that any grower can grow them, any supplier can process and supply them, and brewers can use them without paying a surcharge.

Are the proprietary hops simply better? Higher quality? Take a look at the charts - Hop Chart 1 and Hop Chart 2. The numbers dont tell the whole story, to be sure. Hops are odd creatures that behave differently year to year, farm to farm, terroir to terroir, brew kettle to brew kettle, and bottle to bottle (the pageantry surrounding the menagerie wrapped up in a tapestry). But the hop chemistry charts do provide a measuring stick for comparing apples to apples.

So, do brewers fastidiously demand these proprietary hops over the publicly owned varieties or do the suppliers simply tell the brewers that these are what's available and these are what they need to use?

I don't know the answers. I do know that to thrive and distinguish themselves, brewers need variety, choice and fair competition. And they need a reliable, sustainable price. Hand-crafted aroma hop varieties generally cost more to grow than factory-farmed bittering hops, and I'm sure craft brewers are willing to pay a bit more, but nobody likes to be gouged. More than once I've heard a brewer summon the "same boat" metaphor: when the tides up, all boats -- the grower's, the supplier's and the brewer's --should go up, and when the tides down, you get the drift.

To quote a brewer from the Bay Area I recently talked to about this conundrum, "Some of my friends want to brew decent beer with crazy-cool labels; I'd rather brew crazy cool brews with decent labels..."

If anyone has access to data comparing proprietary aroma hops to their publicly owned counterparts via trained sensory panels, please let me know.

Roger Worthington

1 comment:

  1. "...I would surely burn in Hell were I to extrapolate from the crumbs of evidence gleaned from these random tours any righteously rigorous conclusions, but I have noticed, shall we say, the faint whiff of an association..."

    Please do "extrapolate". Details would be awesome!

    This reminds me of Monsanto's Ready-Roundup seeds. Because Monsanto has the patent, they are in a position of monopolizing the agro-seeds business. Likewise with the commercial hop industry, patents are pushed for varieties which fiscally benefit the industrialized hop-oligopoly. Its all about controlling markets to make "more" money.