Is the apocalypse upon us? Americans are hoarding rice, Starbucks' profits are declining, the American dollar is at parity with the Canadian dollar, and the Boston Red Sox have won two of the past four World Series. With the Chicago Cubs off to one of the best starts in their history, I am beginning to fear for the future of our planet. At least we can all profit from the earth's slow death through an investment vehicle designed to capitalize on climate change.

Just hand me a cold one
What's that, you say? You'll be fine as long as you can kick back and crack open a bottle of your favorite beer at the end of a long, hard day? Not so fast, Homer. A worldwide hops shortage is limiting many small brewers' access to the types and amount of the plant that they need. So you may find that your brew lacks the kick that you're used to. If you can find your brew at all.

Hops offset the sweetness of grains -- usually barley -- and provide the spice to a beer. If your favorite beer is a highly hopped variety such as India Pale Ale and is crafted by a small brewer or microbrewer, then you may find your options difficult to swallow in the coming months. The hops shortage has several causes, but disappointing crops in Europe and Asia -- coupled with the surging demand from U.S. craft brewers, which often use several times the amount of hops per barrel as the industry behemoths do -- seem to be the main culprits.

Hopped-up growth
According to the Brewers Association, craft-beer volume grew 12% last year, and revenue increased 16%. Those figures were enough to trounce both mass-produced domestic and import volumes, which grew by a paltry 1.4%. The craft category has been strong for a number of years in a row -- it grew 12% in 2006 and has risen by 57% overall since 2003.

The growth in craft brews is a bright light in an otherwise skunked industry. But in the context of the big three American brewers -- Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD), SABMiller, (OTC BB: SBMRY.PK) and Molson Coors (NYSE: TAP) -- the segment is minuscule. According to the Brewers Association, craft brews make up just 3.8% of overall industry volume and 5.9% of revenue.

The impact of craft brews on the overall industry is larger than mere numbers, however. Craft brews revitalized a stagnant industry that offered undifferentiated products and lowbrow advertising. As spirits makers such as Diageo (NYSE: DEO) and Brown-Forman (NYSE: BF-B) introduced new flavors and aspirational brands, and wine became more accessible to mass audiences, beer was dubbed as unsophisticated and unimaginative. The popularity of craft beers helped to stem this tide and raised the profile of the entire segment. If the results Anheuser-Busch brewed up in the first-quarter results are any indication, the sector is going to need all of the help it can get in the coming months.

Boston Beer to the rescue
One company that investors might expect to struggle during a hops shortage is Boston Beer (NYSE: SAM). The company claims it brought taste back to the American brewing scene in the early 1990s, and its varieties tend to be more highly hopped than mass lagers.

Boston Beer is apparently very well stocked, however, because it released 20,000 pounds of hops to craft brewers a few weeks ago. This was a brilliant move. Sharing a scarce resource in a fairly tight-knit community such as the one made up of hardcore hopheads will breed goodwill within the industry for years to come. Because the company is currently straining to add capacity to keep up with frothing demand, this goodwill likely came at a minimal cost in lost sales to competitors.

Though it was a nice gesture, Boston Beer's hop-aid is unlikely to fill the overall shortfall in the industry. Larger brewers seem to have adequate supplies of hops so far, while smaller brewers and their fans are still feeling the pinch, so craft-brew fans might want to stock up on their favorite styles sooner rather than later. No one should have to face Armageddon with second-rate suds.

For related Foolishness:

SAB Miller is a Global Gains recommendation. Anheuser-Busch has been recommended by Inside Value. Diageo is an Income Investor pick. The Fool owns shares of Starbucks, which has been selected by both Stock Advisor and Inside Value. Want to brew up some frothy gains in your portfolio? Give the Motley Fool's newsletter services a sip (or gulp) via the 30-day free trial.

Fool contributor Matthew Reilly enjoys the beverages of many companies he follows but does not own any positions in the above companies. The Fool's disclosure policy should always be enjoyed responsibly.