Weyerbacher wants your understanding

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If you’ve bought a case in the new year, you’ve probably noticed the price has been jacked up by a four or five bucks, maybe even more.

It’s not like we weren’t warned. Craft brewers have been griping about the rising prices of ingredients for months. Last fall, Dan Weirback, president of Weyerbacher Brewing in Easton, emailed a missive to his customers, pleading for understanding. “We need you now more than ever if we are to continue making great beer,” he wrote. (You can read the entire letter at www.weyerbacher.com.)

I spoke with Weirback this week as he visited bars and distributors that had just received the latest price sheet, with increases of $30 per keg or more. Here’s a condensed transcript of our conversation.

        Joe Sixpack: Why did you write your plea for understanding?

Dan Weirback: When the price of gas goes up, the first thing you hear is that the gas stations are gouging. I was worried that people would call us a bunch of crooks, ‘You’re trying to rip us off.’ The concern at first was great because of the increases.

        J6: What kind of reaction did you get?

DW: I received nearly 100 emails at the website, all in support, except for one, and when I wrote him back in detail, he was won over, too. As we talked and listened, the feedback was positive. Our customers understand that this is a cottage industry, they’re getting fresh beer from local merchants.

        J6: You say the biggest reason for the increases is the cost of ingredients. What kind of increases are you experiencing?

DW: We’re seeing $17 to $22 more per pound for hops, which is nearly a 400 percent increase. We use 12 different varieties and they’re all going up. Malt is up by 56 percent.

J6: Let’s get a little more specific here. What are your hops costs on Hops Infusion.

DW: Normally I don’t like to talk about the amount of ingredients we put into our beers – that’s proprietary. But we use about 60 pounds of hops for a 20-barrel batch, which makes about 250 cases. Before, that 60 pounds cost us $300. It’s now $1,200. So the impact on Hops Infusion is $3.75 a case, just for the hops. And Double Simcoe is a lot worse.

        J6: How much more will Hops Infusion cost at retail?

DW: Figure on about $7 or $8 more.

        J6: How about Double Simcoe IPA?

DW: On the retail end, it’s going up by $15 to $18 per case.

        J6: What about hops supply?

DW: There’s a shortage of hops because world demand up. That’s partly due to all these super hoppy beers. But there’s more to it than that. In the ‘90s, there was a glut of hops, and acreage began to dwindle. Now there’s a bigger demand from China and Russia. Plus word on the street is that the big three brewers have been gobbling up all the hops they can get just to make sure they can supply their own market share. You almost have a free-for-all, and the people who are having the worst time are the really small packaging breweries and brewpubs. Any excess hops are going to be difficult to find. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but you wonder how far prices are going to go up. I don’t know of a single hops supplier who’s accepting new customers.”

        J6: Do you have enough hops for all your beer styles?

DW: I know I’ll have enough of all the hops for the rest of the year  because we can substitute the hops on some of the varieties, so it’s not such a big deal. Our Blithering Idiot barleywine, for example, we had to substitute one of the bittering hops. But that’s a beer style where you won’t notice the change.

The Double Simcoe, on the other hand, has to be made with Simcoe hops, and there are only a few people who grow it.

        J6: Will you have enough hops to brew Double Simcoe?

DW: It depends on how much of it we sell.

J6: It doesn’t sound like you’re too worried about losing customers. I thought most beer drinkers based their purchases on price.

DW: That’s left over from the era of industrial beer, when you had store managers thinking that way, and consumers that way. That’s a paradigm that doesn’t exist any more… It isn’t all about price any more. Many people are more concerned about quality, and frankly they think about the price per bottle, not price per case. You can look at Blithering Idiot, which costs $50 a case, or just $2 a bottle. Compare that to the price of Bud, Miller, Coors at a bar, and it’s much less expensive. .

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Joe Sixpack by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send email to joesixpack@phillynews.com

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