In the land of pilsner, Czech hops suffer amid drought

ZATEC, Czech Republic (Reuters) - Fans of sought-after Czech hops might be left a little thirsty this year as the prized hops are the latest victim of a summer drought, cutting yields by about 30 percent below average.

Czech hop growers are likely to fare worse than the world’s main producers, Germany and the United States, which account for about three-quarters of the global supply. Only a mild drop is expected in those countries in 2018.

In 2017, global production reached 118,400 tonnes.

Hops are one of the main ingredients of beer, giving the drink its distinctive aroma and flavor. The growing popularity of specialty craft beers in Europe, the United States and elsewhere has boosted hop demand in recent years.

Czech hops, especially Saaz kinds from Zatec in the central European country’s northwest region, are among the most popular, belonging to the “noble hops” variety together with those grown in neighboring Germany.

But a lack of rain in the key summer months this year has hurt the harvest in the Czech Republic, home of pilsner and the world’s biggest per capita beer-drinking nation.

This year’s crop is expected to fall to 4,700 tonnes, 30 percent below the long-term average and well short of last year’s harvest of 6,800 tonnes, according to the Czech Hop Growers’ Union.

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“We don’t expect any significant impact in terms of price because producers have long-term contracts,” the union’s secretary Michal Kovarik said.

“The quality this year is average,” he added.

About half of the Czech harvest is typically earmarked for export. Last year, half of exports of Czech hops went to Japan and China. Other top markets are Germany, Russia and Belgium.

Pilsner Urquell, the Czech pale lager dating back to 1842 which is known as the original pilsner, uses Czech hops which gives it its distinctive bitter taste.

Japan’s largest brewer Asahi, which now owns the Pilsner Urquell brand, is an important buyer of Czech hops, both for Pilsner Urquell and for Japanese brands, Lubos Hejda, the chairman of the Hop Growers’ Union, told Reuters.

For Josef Fric, a producer in the Zatec region, this harvest will prove difficult. He sees his take cut in half.

“From what I remember, this year is the worst,” he said.

Reporting by Jiri Skacel and Robert Muller; Editing by Adrian Croft