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Small brewers say Anheuser-Busch is squeezing them out of the South African hops market

Against the backdrop of another brewery acquisition by AB InBev, small breweries express concern about hops.
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If you pay anywhere near the attention to brewery social media accounts that we do, you may have noticed a few brewers on the morning of Wednesday, May 10 sharing something akin to this Facebook post from Portland, Oregon-based brewery Great Notion:

Great… Anheuser-Busch InBev just swooped in and bought all of the exciting new South African hops we thought we had coming to us this summer. tweet

Similar posts could be found on the Facebook pages for California’s Casa Agria Specialty Ales and Rhode Island’s Proclamation Ale Co.

What do these brewers have in common? All of them acquire their South African hop varieties through ZA Hops, a Colorado-based distributor that works with South Africa-based SAB Hop Farms to provide the hops to American craft brewers. And on that Wednesday, ZA Hops owner Greg Crum informed them all that Anheuser Busch InBev—which gained control of SAB Hop Farms through its 2016 merger with fellow brewing conglomerate SABMiller—would no longer allow him to buy those hops.

ZA Hops is one of very few (read: maybe two or three) American distributors of South African hops, and is far and away the largest. Crum purchases his hops from SAB Hop Farms for distribution to brewers in the U.S. and has been doing so since 2012. All of the in-vogue varieties he provides to American brewers—Southern Passion, African Queen, Southern Star and Southern Aroma, as well as some experimental varieties—are grown by SAB farms. The partnership has until now been beneficial for both parties, Crum says, as the company regularly had excess that he was able to help sell off to American brewers. He even convinced SAB in 2014 to expand its hop production and investments in the export market.

But in March, Crum says, AB InBev’s European directors passed down a directive to SAB Hop Farms that all of the South African hops it produced were to be allocated for InBev. The entire portion of the 2017 hop harvest slated for U.S. export—some 20 metric tons, according to Crum—would be slated for internal sale and distribution among the corporation’s North American breweries, which are rolled into a portfolio called The High End. Despite Crum’s attempts to convince SAB otherwise, that decree became final last Thursday—the day the sale of Wicked Weed was announced.

Crum says the move caught him by surprise, as he had been working to convince InBev and SAB Hop Farms that the numbers would work out better for them if they allowed him to continue distributing their excess hops.

“The director of SAB Hop Farms and I communicate basically weekly, and she threw out some numbers that Goose Island and whatnot could potentially play with, and it wasn’t going to dip into what I already had verbal contracts for. We had 11.5 metric tons already ‘sold,’ if you will,” Crum says. “I don’t know what sort of volumes the High End brands can pump out and how that equates to hop usage. But the reality is they already tried to sell the hops internally, and they couldn’t do it. There was not enough demand internally.”

Crum says there are no other South African hop farms he could even purchase from; SAB owns all of the hop production infrastructure as well as the farms and breeders. Without them, he has no ability to bring South African varieties to the U.S. And because the varieties produced by SAB are proprietary, no other farms can even grow them.

What that means for ZA Hops: “It’s done,” Crum says. “I still have some stock from 2016, but after that I’m out of business.”

Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association—a trade group that represents small and independent brewers—said in an email that with large brewers now owning brands that compete against craft brewers, they may have a desire for certain ingredients that are more common in certain beer styles that extend beyond light lager and standard American lager. (It should be noted that Anheuser-Busch already owns Elk Mountain, a 1,700-acre hop farm in Idaho.) While the BA works to educate its members on developments in the supply chain and providing them tools to work toward securing their needs, Gatza said, this particular disruption in the raw materials market could cause hardship for some ingredient vendors and brewers who were used to getting certain hops from certain suppliers.

Great Notion co-founder Paul Reiter says that while his brewery doesn’t have any beers that are built around the South African varieties he was hoping to get from ZA Hops this year, brewers had been working on several recipes that focused on them.

“We just wanted to stay ahead of the curve and have the cool, new, trendy experimental varieties,” Reiter says. “We’re just screwed on that now.”

The move by InBev also has some brewers worried that this is but the first stage in an overarching strategy to control access to the flow of beer’s ingredients.

“It makes you wonder a little bit what the next step is for Big Beer,” says Casa Agria brewer and co-founder Eric Drew. “They’re buying out craft breweries now; are they going to start looking at buying independent hop farms to limit what’s available to the independent brewer? That’s kind of what scares me most.”

Though calls to AB InBev weren’t initially returned, the company did eventually get back to us with this statement from Willy Buholzer, AB InBev’s Global Hops Procurement Director:

South Africa is not a traditional hop growing region. SAB’s R&D efforts made it possible to grow hops in South Africa but it is still less than 1% of the world hop acreage and production. This year, South Africa suffered from low yields. Previously, SAB has sold a small surplus of locally-grown hops to the market. Unfortunately this year we do not have enough to do so given the poor yield. More than 90 percent of our South African-grown hops will be used in local brands Castle Lager and Castle Lite, beers we’ve committed to brewing with locally-grown ingredients. In support of the local industry, we additionally sell hops to South African craft breweries. This means that less than five percent can be allocated to other Anheuser-Busch InBev breweries outside of South Africa. Knowing the high demand for South African hops locally and abroad, we are working to expand local hop acreage. Depending on the 2018 crop outcome, we may once again be able to sell more hops to breweries outside of South Africa. tweet

But even if InBev does decide to sell the overstock, Drew says he won’t buy from them.

“I think the selection they have wouldn’t affect me enough to even consider that,” Drew says. “There are plenty of great hops in the U.S., Germany, Australia and New Zealand, that I’m not going to tempt my ideals for those few varieties I’m excited about.”

And Crum, for his part, isn’t optimistic about future dealings between InBev and America’s small brewers. “Craft brewing is getting screwed big-time,” he says. “[AB InBev has] stepped up their game big-time in the last couple months, and it’s only going to get worse.”

 

Author
Zach Fowle is DRAFT's beer editor. Reach him at zach@draftmag.com.

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One Comment

  • Brian Harley says:

    As a home brewer and craft beer geek, what big beer is doing makes my stomach turn. America was built on beer and beer, good beer is what America wants. Boycott anything that has to do with big beer and buy local buy craft.

    Cheers..

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