YAKIMA, Wash. — To say 2020 was a precarious year for Northwest hop growers would be a massive understatement.
Pandemic closures hammered bars and restaurants, causing an overall decline in the U.S. beer market. Then came severe weather during the hop harvest, with high winds desiccating ripe cones and blowing down trellises.
Thick smoke from large wildfires also filled the skies, sending plants into early dormancy and reducing late-season yields.
Despite the challenges, total hop acreage is up 4% in 2021 across Washington, Idaho and Oregon, and industry representatives are cautiously optimistic about a speedy recovery.
“We’re starting to see things picking back up,” said Jaki Brophy, communications director for Hop Growers of America, a trade association based in Yakima, Wash. “We’re certainly not back to where we were before quite yet, but it does look like things are starting to recover well.”
According to a USDA report issued June 10, Washington has 60,735 acres of hops strung for harvest, an increase of 2,094 acres over last year. Idaho has 9,784 acres of hops this year, up 516, and Oregon has 7,571 acres, up 467.
The total of 60,735 acres is a record high, though Brophy said some of those additions are the result of pre-pandemic planning, and not new business.
“A lot of this is based on past demand,” she said. “The sentiment and estimate at this point is the increases aren’t necessarily from recent contracts, but fulfilling ones that were previously established.”
Michelle Palacios, administrator of the Oregon Hops Commission, said acreage is up in 2021 based on baby hops that were strung last year but did not produce a crop.
Unlike Washington and Idaho, it takes Oregon growers two years to harvest new hop plants based on the climate. Those acres are not included in the USDA’s annual report.
Palacios said more growers in Oregon are transitioning their acreage from alpha hop varieties such as Nugget to more aroma varieties like Citra and Centennial, driven by increased demand among craft brewers.
“Our (increased) acres was absolutely anticipated because of this variety transition that we’re going through,” Palacios said. “These acres were in the ground in 2020, but we just didn’t get to harvest them.”
Craft brewing has been the primary catalyst for the growth in hop acres, Brophy said. Brewers use more hops per glass in beers such as pale ales that are rising in popularity worldwide.
But 2020 was undeniably difficult for the industry as on-site beer consumption fell due to COVID-19. That disproportionately affected craft brewing. While the overall beer market was down 3% last year, craft beer volume was down 9%.
Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association, which represents craft breweries, said their members rely more heavily on draft and on-site consumption than larger beer companies such as Anheuser-Busch or Molson Coors.
As more people drank beer at home during the pandemic, Watson said craft brewers faced a tougher adjustment.
“Generally, that tradeoff is bad for craft breweries,” he said.
The beer industry’s struggles rippled back up the supply chain to hop farms. About 98% of the U.S. crop comes from the Pacific Northwest. While hop acreage was up in 2020 over 2019, production fell to 104.8 million pounds, according to Hop Growers of America.
Brophy said the reason was twofold. First, growers did idle some acres to account for the pandemic’s disruption of bars and restaurants. Mother Nature was the other culprit, with wind and smoke reducing Washington’s yield by 12.56%, and Idaho’s by 8.8%.
“People are estimating in the hops industry that it was probably down about 10%, give or take,” Brophy said.
For all the chaos of 2020, this year has brought some early encouragement. The economy is gradually reopening as more people are vaccinated against COVID-19, which Watson said will only help craft brewing to regain its footing.
“Most forecasts, including mine, put craft brewing at a volume between 2019 and 2020,” he said. “We’re not fully back to normal, but we’re certainly much more normal than we were.”
It is still too early to make assumptions, Brophy said, but hop farmers are exuding an overall sense of optimism that things are bouncing back quicker than originally anticipated.
“We’re still carefully monitoring the situation,” she said. “As long as everything continues along this trend of things opening up more, with higher levels of vaccinations and things being safe to go back to more of a pre-pandemic situation, that will certainly be good.”