2018 UK HOP OUTLOOK

Fuggles (above), and some Goldings varieties, are usually the first hop varieties to be harvested in the UK. We will be picking ours in the first couple of weeks of September. These hops are just going into burr. Burr is the growth stage when delicate flowers emerge on hop plants – they are the precursor of the hop cones which we harvest for making beer.

The UK is blessed (from a farming perspective at least!) by high levels of rainfall when plants need it the most – in the spring and summer. This means we get some of the highest yields of staple crops like wheat and barley in the world – all without the need for expensive, and often unsustainable irrigation systems. Unfortunately the weather in 2018 has not played along: after a wet cold spring, rain has been almost non-existent in the UK’s two hop growing regions (Kent and Herefordshire / Worcestershire). This has been exacerbated by scorching temperatures which increase the plant’s demand for water – one hop plant can ‘drink’ up to 60 litres per week in the spring. Besides the direct need from the plants themselves for water, a bit of moisture will dissolve the fertiliser which farmers spread on top of the soil, allowing plants to take it up at the optimal time.

The lack of rain has cracked the ground right open, and means that most hops across the UK are showing signs of stress. Recently planted hops (like the fuggles above) or hops on light soil will be affected the most.

 

These hops would normally be dark, lush green all the way down the bine. A lack of moisture is turning the leaves yellow (and the boy angry!).

The hops might come back – late spring and early summer in 2011 were hot and dry, which lead to sharp reductions in the yields of arable crops harvested in July and August that year. Rainfall later on in the summer though meant that hops recovered, and yields were close to long-term averages. However it is probable that the yields of early varieties such as Fuggles will be reduced in 2018.

Paradoxically a poor harvest nationally can be good for farmers (if not for brewers). Brewers need hops to make beer which means that demand is price-inelastic and makes the price paid more volatile than many other crops. To illustrate this, a 20% decline in yields could lead to a 50% increase in spot prices if there is a scramble to secure supplies. A farmer selling on the spot market would prefer £15 / kg for 600 kg / acre vs £10 / kg for 750 kg / acre. Even if price signals help clear the market in the short-term, it might be that brewers need to show some flexibility in their recipes – substituting in similar hops, or blending hops from different years.
Great weather and low levels of disease pressure meant that 2017’s yields dramatically exceeded long-term averages. This depressed spot prices at the farm gate, and probably also means that large inventories of 2017’s crop will be carried over in stores at merchants and brewers into 2018. A poor harvest in 2018 may actually then be best for the health of the industry.

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