In the northern hemisphere, hops are typically harvested in September. Earlier in the year, I tried to contract some hops for this year's harvest (i.e. buy them in advance so that my supply would be guaranteed). I was unsuccessful, which ended up being a good thing for two reasons:
1. Opening the pub is going slower than I expected, so I probably won't need hops until after the 2009 harvest.
2. The 2008 crop was better than it was projected to be, so availability is up and prices are down. If I had signed a contract, I would have paid higher prices than the current market value.
I recently talked with Hopunion - the major hop supplier of the craft brewing industry - about contracting some hops for the 2009 harvest. It's looking like I won't have any problems. I could sign a contract right now, but I'm going to hold off for a few months. Doing so will give me a better idea of when I'll need hops, will allow the hop prices stabilize some more, and will give me time to look for organic hops (which Hopunion sells very little of).
Organic hops are tricky. First off, they're difficult to grow. Hops are prone to a variety pests and diseases that thrive in the US and Europe. As such, most of the world's organic hops are grown in New Zealand. Secondly, the number of existing varieties are extremely limited. I've been experimenting with a bittering hop from New Zealand called Pacific Gem, but I haven't been very happy with the results. It lends a harsh bitterness to beer (due to high co-humulone levels, if you must know), which wouldn't be an issue if I used a variety such as Nugget, Magnum, Simcoe or Horizon - none of which are available organically. Traditional styles of beer that depend on specific hop characteristics simply can't be brewed with organic hops because, again, the varieties don't exist. Thirdly, organic hops are expensive. Growing hops without pesticides results in low yields, government certifications cost money, and shipping across the ocean is not cheap.
As a result, most certified organic beers probably don't have a lot of organic hops in them. To receive the standard organic certification from the USDA, 95% of the total ingredients (by weight) need to be certified organic. A typical 7-barrel beer recipe looks something like this:
Malted barley - 500 lbs
Hops - 5 lbs
In the above recipe, hops are less than 1% of the total weight. Even a hoppy pale ale, using the same amount of grain, would probably only have about 10-15 lbs of hops in it. Because hops are such a small amount of the total ingredient weight, certified organic beer can be produced with no organic hops whatsoever. A USDA rule change has been proposed that would require each type of ingredient to be 95% organic by weight, but I don't believe it's been implemented yet.
I do have a source for one organically-grown hop variety - Cascades from Gorst Valley Hops in Mazomanie - but the hops won't be certified. Due to the expense and hassle of certification, a lot of farmers simply don't want to deal with it. James, the Gorst Valley farmer, takes it a step further and claims that an organic certification doesn't ensure that something is organic. He told me an interesting story about visiting a certified organic farm that sprayed chemical pesticides on their crops. They were able to get away with it because the pesticides were in containers that previously held substances that were approved for organic production, and the inspectors didn't look any farther than the labels on the containers. James looks at not certifying his hops as an opportunity to educate people on what sustainable farming is really about.
Still, it seems like a formal certification does a lot for consumer confidence. What do you think? Would you rather buy beer made with non-certified organic hops grown down the road, or would you rather buy beer made with certified organic hops shipped from New Zealand?