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Self-imposed Hops Shortage

If you know me, you know that I'm a big fan of beer. I travel for beer. I organize events around beer. Beer is the tie that binds. Almost every culture in history has held an affection for beer, many having discovered its unlikely composition completely independently of one another. The world loves beer. And why not? It's delicious, its low alcohol content allows for casual drinking, and it adequately embodies the spirit of leisure in our society.

So, I want to thank all the people that saw fit over the last year or so to alert me of the growing hops shortage. In case you're unaware, hops are one of the four principal ingredients of beer. In my opinion, they are the ingredient that when used generously, imparts the greatest amount of appealing flavor and bitterness to beer. It's all over the news, so I don't feel the need to link any of the dozens of stories I've seen. Here's a news search, if you must.

I'm not greatly interested in reporting the undeniable fact that Washington and Oregon hops are in short supply. I'd rather suggest reasons and possible solutions for this problem that I haven't seen anyone else assemble all in one place before. If you don't feel like reading, I'll summarize the reason in one word: government. Actually, it starts with ethanol.

Ethanol is a form of alcohol that combusts safely and easily, and when combusted, produces a level of energy sufficient to power the internal combustion engine of an automobile, bus, train, plane, boat, or almost any other kind of independent vehicle, especially when combined with conventional gasoline. With increased reliance on these forms of transportation for basically all facets of our lives, the need for readily-available combustible fuel is more important all the time, especially with the distinct possibility that the oil in the ground that we currently use might not hold out for the eternity that we were hoping for.

Indeed ethanol fuel is a spectacular discovery, as it can convert sugar cane into viable fuel at an eight-to-one efficiency ratio for its creation. Unfortunately for us, the majority of the United States is too cold a place for the growing of sugar cane, so some scientists forced a square peg into a round hole with corn, or cellulosic, ethanol which currently sports a 1.5-to-one efficiency ratio. The nature of this terrible inefficiency is shunted aside when the fact is presented that most of the United States is basically prime corn-growing land.

Congress recently voted to extend to January 1st, 2013, subsidies for corn growers that promise to divert some, most, or all of their product from the conventional use of corn(feeding meat-rich livestock), to producing cellulosic-derived ethanol.

You see, the federal Government passed a mandate in 2005 that stated that our national fuel supply should be augmented with eight billion gallons of ethanol, or roughly five percent of our current annual consumption, by 2012. This spells a massive need for ethanol fuels, as we are currently nowhere near this goal with domestic ethanol production. That's where these Congressional growing subsidies come in.

Since domestic cellulosic ethanol production is not and never will be enough to meet the 2005 mandate, we are forced to import ethanol from other countries, like Brazil, where fuel concerns are a thing of the past with their humungously gigantic supply of sugar cane, derived from a tiny portion of their agricultural capacity. Unfortunately, there is a strictly-enforced tariff of fifty four cents a gallon, on foreign ethanol, forcing Americans forever to pay more for efficiently-produced and spectacularly abundant foreign ethanol.

What this all boils down to is an unworkable situation which cripples our economy, stagnates international trade, and increases pressure to secure the remaining oil in the ground, setting the stage for global conflict and rampant anti-americanism, all so the distinguished gentleman from Iowa can get reelected for "saving ethanol."

So what does any of this have to do with hops? Hops are the flowers of a vine that grows prolifically in mild, humid climates. Unfortunately, hop farmers are subject to economics and the effects thereof. For a farmer to make any money in America, these days, it would seem that all that one can do is adhere to policies that entitle them to uneconomic government subsidies. So, all over what has historically been America's hop-growing region(Oregon's Willamette Valley, and Washington's Yakima Valley), hop growers aren't seeing the value in growing hops anymore, and are switching their land to grow corn so they can sell a profitable product and rake in the subsidies.

Here is a brief synopsis of our problems and my simple solutions:

  • Cellulosic ethanol is too inefficient to make. Solution: Stop making it.
  • Subsidies on corn create an economic environment where other vital agricultural products are no longer viable. Solution: End the subsidies.
  • Foreign ethanol is cheap, efficient, and abundant, yet we can't easily have it. Solution: Lift the punitive tariffs on foreign ethanol.
  • The 2005 eight billion gallon mandate is ambitious but unrealistic. Solution: Repeal it, or revise it to exist without the protectionist stance.

The madness of current policy will become more obvious as more time passes. Hops are only the beginning. My solutions are clear. If we continue down the current road, we're in for very hard times.

4:27 PM, Jan 9, 2008

1 comment

Brian spoiled the calm with:

Wired had an article on this a while back, talking about a plant called switchgrass. It's a much better ethanol producer than corn that grows well in our climate. I'm not sure how it compares to sugar cane, but yes, in general tariffs are a very bad thing, I think.

5:12 PM, Jan 11, 2008

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