A tear in our beer

Most of us don’t pay attention to the vagaries of global agricultural production, but perhaps we should: After all, they’re finding a way into our favorite drink.

Beer, if you hadn’t noticed, is getting more expensive. Drought in Australia, the weakness of the dollar against the Euro, crop-disease problems in Europe and shifting markets in the United States have all meant that its central ingredients, barley malt and hops, are more costly than ever before.

Doug Riley, head brewer and part-owner of Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company, has seen hop prices double and in some cases quadruple in recent months. Grain prices, he says, have risen 40 to 60 percent “across the board.” That change has forced Riley to abandon two of his signature brews, Red Light and Roland’s, at least for the time being. Both ales rely on the increasingly hard-to-find hop varieties “Cascade” and “Centennial,” which lend them their bitterness and characteristic citrus tang.

To help offset expenses, Asheville Pizza & Brewing has raised the price of a pint from $3.50 to $3.75, a move Riley says puts the company “pretty much on a par” with prices at other breweries.

The crisis may owe in part to short-sightedness in the agricultural sector. Between 1996 and the present, says Riley, hop acreage in the United States, which is located mainly in Oregon and Washington state, has decreased by thousands of acres.

“About five years ago there was a hop glut,” explains Andy Dahm of French Broad Brewing Company near Biltmore Village. Farmers, says Dahm, were lured into other crops, including tree fruit and corn, which could be sold on the burgeoning biofuels market.

Regrettably, their impulse has come to roost in that pint of your daily cheer.

“It’s a mess,” says Dahm. “It’s just a big mess.”

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