Hop industry risks collapse as pub shutdowns hit demand

The centuries-old UK hop growing industry is at risk of collapse after the months-long closure of pubs during the lockdown left brewers unwilling to buy next year’s crop.

Only 40 per cent of the 2021 crop is under contract to brewers, who have been left with a surplus this year after a steep drop in ale consumption because of the pandemic, trade groups said.

“If we don’t have some intervention, then in the autumn growers will have to decide what to do next year, and if they have no contracts they will remove significant acreage or exit the industry. If they exit the industry, we won’t get them back,” said Ali Capper, director of the British Hop Association.

Farmers facing a big fall in demand may quit the sector altogether, she said, adding that some growers were concerned brewers and merchants might not honour contracts if they also faced financial stress.

UK farmers produce 1,500 to 1,700 tonnes of hops per year on about 1,000 hectares of land, specialising in varieties known for their bitterness and used in “traditional” beer styles such as best bitters, stouts and IPAs.

Though small in economic terms, the sector had grown fast in recent years, partly thanks to the craft ale boom. 

Farmers facing a big fall in demand may quit the sector altogether, © Numb/Alamy

Emma Clarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: “If we are continually having to import hops because of this we will lose great British beers.”

The time, equipment and cost involved in planting a new hop crop — which does not produce a full yield for four years — means farmers who stop growing hops seldom return, said Ms Capper, who grows hops and apples in Worcestershire.

This risks the loss of varieties like Goldings, which dates back to 1790, and the 170-year-old Fuggles. 

Tom Stainer, chief executive of the Campaign for Real Ale, said: “We had been developing new varieties and flavours to compete with the best of hops around the world. We were in such a good position before the lockdown started. This will be absolutely devastating.”

Two-thirds of ale is sold in pubs, which have been closed for three months because of the pandemic. When pubs reopen from July, they expect to operate at low capacity because of social distancing measures

Duncan Sambrook, founder of Sambrook’s brewery in Wandsworth, said: “We’ve already contracted for a load of hops for this year. We won’t use that contract because we have seen our sales decimated [but] I will have to pay for that contract in full . . . The residual hop contract for 2020 will see us through to 2021.

“All the breweries are now saying ‘we are not going to contract next year’.”

Londoners on holiday picking hops in Kent in the 1950s. The hop industry in the UK is centuries-old. © Bert Hardy/Getty Images

James Calder, chief executive of the Society of Independent Brewers, said: “Two years down the line we are looking at a huge shortage in British hops.” Of about 750 brewers represented by his group, about 60 per cent use UK hops.

Ms Capper said her group was lobbying UK brewers to use local hops as much as possible, but that government intervention might be needed to buy up surplus hops and save the sector if the situation has not improved by early autumn. 

Hops is a high-risk crop that is vulnerable to bad weather and pests, and is mostly sold under contract rather than as a commodity, she said.

UK hop yields dropped in the late 20th century because of the rise of lager — often made with continental European hops — and the prevalence of the soil-borne disease verticillium wilt. But disease-resistant varieties and the craft beer boom had helped fuel recent growth.