Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hop Shortage

Read today that there's a worldwide shortage of hops, the spice used to give beer its bitter flavor.

It's a sordid tale of supply and demand, that would be very dry if its effects weren't so dramatic. Basically two years ago there was a supply glut of hops, compared to demand--lots being grown, lots being made into hop extract and "put up," which kept prices low: lots of hops around, easy to get, and so they stayed cheap. Problem is, being cheap, hop farmers have had less and less incentive to plant hops each year, and so acreage planted (as well as laid-up hop-extract supply causing the glut) has dipped for the past several years. Put in a bad growing year for a few regions' hops in 2007, and you've got a recipe for a shortage.

The effect of this shortage for beer drinkers is that beer prices will rise for a few years, probably through 2010, and craft brewers (known for making high-hop beers like Imperial India Pale Ales and others) are having to scramble and scrape to get the hops they need to make their beers according to style, or even to make them at all.

For beer makers, the big brewers like Miller and Bud will grab almost all of the supply for the years in question, with little practical effect. Specialty and craft brewers will have a harder time, having to get by on the leavings once the big boys are done, and may have to jack prices dramatically, or even reformulate beers with signature hop-taste profiles. Homebrewers like me will likely wind up simply unable to get the hops we desire, or having to pay prices as much as two to five to ten times the price we paid a year or two ago, for hops we might not have given a second glance.

Luckily for me there are other fermentable options. I foresee more meads and wines to come over the next few years.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Genre, Faddishness and Verisimilitude

(Reading: steampunk - the new genre by James Roy.)

In working on Myriad (the novel in question), I'm constantly running up against detail that the world needs. One protagonist is a female blacksmith, for example: cue research on metallurgy, forge techniques, Victorian-era machining and other important punctilia.

Oh? "Victorian-era"? Yeah, looks like most of one storyline is going to have a steampunk setting. Got a problem with that?

Defining the Term
For those who aren't familiar, steampunk (Wikipedia treatment) is a subgenre of both science fiction and fantasy, wherein much of the technologically interesting world of the 1800s (brass, glass and steam power) is crossbred, sometimes with elements of science fiction like cyberpunk (techno-dystopia, a century "early"), or the speculative fiction of Wells and Verne, or even fantasist elements of magic and the occult a la Lovecraft. This is all done to create a storytelling environment with the the earthiness and gentility of (frequently idealized) Victorian England; the technological racing of today's Moore's Law age; and a brass gear, iron piston, velvet coat, top hat aesthetic.

I had a great steampunk discussion with my chemical engineer brother Matt a few years back: there are lots of problems with the way most authors do steampunk. One of the major differences between then and now, for example, is metallurgy: we're just better at alloys and the like, now, and not by accident: computers and many other trappings of our current information age were pretty much required to get us to the point where our car engines, for example, are as light, heat resistant and strong as they are. Ditto materials science in areas like aluminum, plastics and glassmaking; steam turbine power-to-weight limitations we've discovered, and a thousand-thousand other areas that permeate so many areas of modern life that we can't see past them when we posit, for example, a steampunker flying a steam-powered prop airplane, or driving a flywheel-powered car, or building a clockwork robot. For that matter, many of the achievements and conveniences of modern life arose from technological lessons we learned in the Victorian and later periods--it's not like England didn't have geosynchronous satellites in the 1870s because the Brits were lazy!

Still, in the realm of fiction there are ways around the historical limitations (if not the technological ones, if you're trying to stay honest). Part of the fun in writing this story will be getting there from here while staying as scientifically accurate as possible.

A Tiger by the Tail
Problem is, steampunk, in many ways, is becoming the new black. Per Wikipedia, the genre's name was coined in 1987 (by K.W. Jeter), but it was most definitely popularized in 1990 with publication of The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

So now, 18 years after Difference Engine, we've got steampunk'd jewelry, laptops, even electric guitars, and it's beginning to merge (as a style for the kiddies) with punk and goth infuences. It's an old, well documented progression (first pointed out to me by Ann Crispin in a writing course I attended last year): around fifteen to twenty years after something is cutting edge, it becomes trendy and "in." Happened with Mars fever (from Robison's Red Mars to Mission to Mars), happened with cyberpunk (Gibson's Neuromancer to The Matrix), happening now with steampunk.

Brass Polish
One of the truisms regarding writing is that there are no new stories, and there are precious few truly new things at all. Exciting as steampunk may be now, it may have passed from its flavor-of-the-month status by the time I'm ready to publish. C'est la guerre: the trick is to avoid being boring by telling one's story in as brilliant and as true a way as possible: look at the way China MiƩville (Perdido Street Station, and others) and Patrick Rothfuss (Name of the Wind) have exploded old conventions: MiƩville by being as wonderfully weird and different as he can while spinning beautifully thought-out plots, and Rothfuss by taking Old Fantasy Chestnut after Old Fantasy Chestnut and relentlessly deploying them new and nonboring ways.

I look forward to playing in the steampunk yard. I have a lot of backfill reading to do, though.


Friday, May 09, 2008

Lurching in a New Direction

Long-running fans/followers of Brain Squeezings may or may not be aware of my ambitions to become a published novelist.

Well, work on accomplishing exactly that has begun, and the specific plan is to have a completed manuscript (ms) ready for a heavy revising pass come the end of September, and to have something making the agent-fishing rounds by the end of 2008.

So it has been inscribed, and so promised. So shall it be done. I'm jazzed.

I've also decided to chronicle the process's ups and downs at a new blog: Scribing and Imbibing (, where I plan to log my adventures both literary and fermentational. Brain Squeezings has really become the place I do political and technological rambling, and as such I felt like putting a bit of a partition up between the two halves of my online self.

I'm also cross-posting this (via BlogIT and Facebook) among Brain Squeezings, Scribing and one or two other blogs I've set up. I may engage in some sort of Grand Reunification at some point down the road, but until then I plan to cross-post freely among all my blogs as I see fit. :-)