Counting the cost

Matt Curtis looks into the poorly-understood phenomenon of ‘can shock’ and why ultra-fresh packaged beers may not always be the best


On July 29 2021, a worker at a hop farm in Washington, in the northwestern United States, was found slumped by the steps of his tractor. According to a report in The Seattle Times published on 4 August, attempts to revive him were unsuccessful despite efforts by colleagues at Virgil Gamache Farms where he worked, and he was later pronounced dead. His name was Florencio Gueta Vargas. He was 69 years old. 

In the summer of 2021, the American Pacific Northwest baked. In late June temperatures were recorded at a record incinerating 108ºF (42.2ºC), setting the pace for the entire summer. While hops enjoy warm, dry temperatures (with healthy bouts of rain) this is well beyond their comfort zone. This unbearable heat, in addition to the smoke taint due to forest fires, themselves caused by months of relentless drought, has been a major concern for hop growers in the region. An example of how climate change continues to tighten its grip on the production of what we eat and drink. 

If you’re worried your most cherished US varieties might not make it into your favourite beers next year, then don’t lose hope just yet. In the most recent dispatch of his monthly newsletter Hop Queries, writer Stan Hieronymus reports from the Willamette harvest at Goschie Farms, Oregon on a batch that “looked terrific, and smelled just as good”.

However, Hieronymus continued his newsletter by stating that there are still plenty of hops remaining to be picked, and one farmer is quoted as saying this is the latest harvest they’ve been involved in since 1987, in turn making final yields and quality still difficult to estimate. While smoke taint from forest fires is a risk that continues unabated, it’s the excessive summer heat that will have the biggest impact on this year's harvest. 

“Some of the bines still hanging show the effects of stress from the heat dome that settled over the region at the outset [of] summer,” states Hieronymus. 

It’s the excessive summer heat that will have the biggest impact on this year's harvest

Hop production in the United States accounts for around 40% of the global harvest. Perhaps most importantly to those of you reading this, however, North American hops are responsible for the hazy, juicy, and intensely aromatic modern pale ales and IPAs that have become so popular over the past five or so years. So if you enjoy drinking these kinds of beers, any concern you’re currently feeling may be well placed.

When you also consider the human element in this – that workers have, quite literally, died in the field due to the relentless conditions – the future of hop farming comes to reflect much more serious challenges, and they’re not going away. Summers will continue to get hotter, storms will continue to get worse. How responsible is it to enjoy a product made with an ingredient shipped internationally and farmed in increasingly challenging conditions? 

Please believe me when I say I’m not trying to send you on a guilt trip here. But I do believe that as consumers we have a debt of responsibility for the products we purchase, and to the people involved in their production.

Times they are a changin’

These days I let off a little cry of despair whenever I see someone complain about the price of a pint. Especially knowing how much effort went into its production, and how little many of the workers along that chain (including the person serving it) are likely being compensated for their time. 

Don’t get me wrong: I also appreciate the fact that, ultimately, beer should be open and accessible to as many people as possible. And that includes it being fairly priced. However, is the price of a cheap beer truly fair if any of those involved in the supply chain relating to its production are not being fairly compensated for their work, or are subject to inhumane or challenging working conditions?

In part one of this feature I attempted to break down this supply chain a little, by exploring the means of both hop and malted barley production. Even these supply chains are vast, beginning in the laboratory of a geneticist and ending being served by someone from a tap, or the mouth of a can or bottle. In between are plant breeders, seed merchants, farmers, maltsters, lab technicians, salespeople, marketers, maltsters, brewers, more lab technicians, packaging line workers, distributors and delivery drivers (so, so many drivers, at every stage) before your bartender on minimum wage hands you a glass of beer you’ll hopefully cherish. 

When you start to expand on the full scale of the supply chain, its vastness can be astonishing. Can and bottle producers, chemical suppliers, the people who supply those little wooden spiles for casks. There are those who supply finings and other brewing aids, stainless steel manufacturers, canning and bottling line producers, the companies that supply the cans and bottles themselves, and those that provide the glass and aluminium to those companies. And don’t forget the folks who supply those delightfully coloured lengths of hose you often see in brewery photographs. Even this is just a snapshot of the amount of people involved in the production, supply and logistics of beer. Maybe £6 a pint doesn’t seem so expensive now?

The importance of understanding the beer supply chain is about traceability

I feel that in the romanticisation of beer production by folks like myself, we’ve swept some of the less ‘interesting’ aspects of the beer supply chain to one side, thus making it more difficult to argue in defense of more expensive beers. Who wants to read about distributors, or cask washer manufacturers and so on? Well, I think I do. Or at least the further I delve into how the beer supply chain functions, and its impact on both the environment and what we get to consume as drinkers, the more interesting it becomes to me.

Ultimately, the importance of understanding the beer supply chain is about traceability. Where does my beer come from? And why does it cost that much? This is what I feel is important for ourselves as consumers to understand. 

“There needs to be more transparency,” Derek Bates, co-founder and head brewer at Norfolk’s Duration Brewing tells me. “When it comes to [getting consumers to understand the price of beer] we’ve got to support wholesalers and bottleshops to help them communicate that.”

Being located in the heart of East Anglia, home to vast amounts of industrial agriculture and one of the UK’s major producers of barley, is advantageous for a brewer like Bates. His brewery is just 17 miles from Crisp Maltings, the main supplier of the grain he uses in beer production. In fact, he can gesture towards the rows of golden barley that grow in the fields surrounding the painstakingly restored medieval barn that houses his brewery, and tell visitors to Duration’s taproom they are likely drinking what is grown in those fields. Interconnectivity between the links that make up the supply chain, such as a brewer to its maltster, is demonstrative of why making it more transparent is so important.

“80-90% of the grain we use is grown in spitting distance,” Bates tells me. “But Crisp has also been the most proactive when it comes to investing in equipment, being professional to work with, and producing high quality products. They’re very proactive, and are often stopping by the brewery.”

Home is where the heart is

Let’s consider the importance of a transparent supply chain, and then look at the stories of climate change across the world, such as the heat dome that descended upon the US Pacific Northwest this summer. Is it time for more breweries to look at reducing their footprint and concentrating on the use of British-grown ingredients?

At Utopian Brewery in Exeter, Devon, brewer Jeremy Swainson is producing lagers with obvious Czech and German influence. But there’s a twist: all of the ingredients used in these beers are domestically grown.

“We want to be as sustainable as possible, and reducing our food miles by using only UK-grown, and processed ingredients was an obvious first step, provided we could still brew beers of a high quality,” Utopian Brewery’s founder Richard Archer says. “Secondly, we believed there was a growing desire among consumers to understand more about where the food they eat comes from.” 

There was a growing desire among consumers to understand more about where the food they eat comes from

For Archer, using only 100% UK-grown ingredients removes any potential ambiguity in terms of the provenance of Utopian’s beers, and by supporting British growers he hopes to help build a positive brand among drinkers. As we learned in part one, British producers, including Simpson’s Malt and Brook House Hops, are putting increasing focus on raising the quality of their produce, as well as the awareness of British ingredients. There is definitely a future in this, even when it comes to very modern styles of beer such as bold, juicy IPAs. For example, Birmingham’s Dig Brew Co. produces Waka/Jiwaka, a Double IPA made using only British ingredients, brewed in collaboration with Michelin starred restaurant, Carter’s of Moseley.

However, there’s a stark reality we have to face. While the UK is a huge producer of malted barley, and could well supply the entire industry here, the same cannot be said for hops. Only 2% of global hops are cultivated on the British Isles, and it will be a long time before we catch up with the US and Germany, which together are responsible for 4/5ths of the planet’s hop supply. 

“We knew the biggest challenge would be to find combinations of hops that would enable us to create beers that were influenced by the international styles but without the food miles,” Archer says. “Charles Faram and their experimental hop program has played a big part in this. The importance of engaging in this program cannot be stressed highly enough; by working [directly] with suppliers this feeds back to the growers themselves.”

While there is definitely a future in the continued investment into British raw materials, be they hops, barley or anything else that makes up the vastly complex beer supply chain, the reality is that in its current form, beer production is not as sustainable as it needs to be. It’s a positive that brewers are investing in closer relationships with the suppliers of their equipment and raw materials. Perhaps, though, it’s time for us as those who enjoy drinking beer to take some responsibility and ask “where does this really come from” the next time we pick up a pint.

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