Four simple ingredients, mixed with several thousand years of brewing knowledge, combine to make the magical elixir that is beer, from the palest, crispest lager to the darkest, richest porter.
But, as with so many industries dependent on the living environment, the changes to the climate are wreaking havoc with the way things have always worked and, now, your favorite tipple may be at risk.
Let’s take barley, which accounts for the majority of the grain bill of virtually every beer brewed in the U.S. today (wheat, rice and corn are also used, to a much lesser extent). Barley has been hit by a double-whammy of climate chaos. First, according to the USDA, 76% of barley growing regions are experiencing drought conditions, meaning that yields are lower than if water was readily available. Additionally, growing in drought conditions means that the protein and starch ratios within the grain are different than usual. Too much protein can reduce the clarity of the final product and can also ‘clog the sparge’, which may sound painful but just means that the brewing liquid (wort) is unable to flow properly, reducing the efficiency of the brewing process. Second, when the rain does come, too much of it comes at the wrong time. If it rains heavily in the weeks before the grain is harvested – which has happened in recent years in the West – then the barley grain germinates on the plant, using up its sugar reserves in the process, and becomes unusable for brewing. Brewing relies on the germination process being steadily controlled through malting, which ensures that the grain’s sugars are freshly available for fermentation by whichever strain of yeast the brewmaster chooses.
Next, hops, which are responsible for much of the flavorings we associate with beer, have also been struggling with the impact of unseasonal weather events. In 2020, the U.S. hop harvest was below average due to an unexpected intense heatwave late in the season which damaged crops. And the dangers facing hop cultivation are not limited to the U.S. A hailstorm in the growing region of Saaz (Czech Republic) - a classic lager hop - in June 2020 (normally a summer month) severely damaged the harvest. Many classic hop varieties (such as Saaz in NW Czech Republic and Goldings in Kent, England) are concentrated in relatively small areas and are, therefore, more vulnerable to climate change than hops grown across a variety of climates. Research is currently being conducted into how changes in temperature and, in particular, warmer nights, appears to affect the volume of ‘hoppy’ flavor compounds that hop plants produce. The exact impact of these changes is not yet known, but could lead to changes in the flavor profiles of established beers that have hitherto delivered a consistent taste.
Finally, water, which causes problems if there is too much, or too little, or at the wrong time of year. Beer is obviously a water-dependent product (it is 90-95% water) and if, as predicted, water shortages become more and more of a problem in U.S. brewing areas, then water is likely to become more expensive, and breweries will need to become more water-efficient, or perhaps relocate to areas with more reliable water supplies. The Water Footprint Network estimates that a gallon of beer uses 296 gallons of water across its entire production process. Though this sounds very high, it is by no means the most water-dependent product. Coffee production needs 1,056 gallons of water per gallon of final product, and almonds 1,929 gallons of water per pound.
So, what will beer taste like when traditional sources of barley, hops and water are in short supply? Hopefully not like New Belgium Brewing’s ‘Torched Earth Ale’, which the brewery released to highlight how a beer brewed only from ingredients available in a post-environmental apocalyptic hellscape might taste. It was made from smoke-tainted water, weeds like dandelions, and drought resistant grains. It was, from all accounts, about as nice as it sounds.
Beer will need to adapt to new environmental challenges, but this is not the first time that beer has had to do so. When the Germans brought their centuries of brewing know-how with them across the Atlantic, and made beer with the protein-rich 6-row barley that grows so well in the U.S., the result was a cloudy pint, very different to the clear lagers of their home country. However, replacing some of the barley with lower protein grains (like rice) was found to improve brew clarity; this approach is still used in some brews today. Anheuser-Busch InBev, the owner of many of the best-selling U.S. lager brands, includes a substantial portion of rice in the make-up of both Budweiser and Bud Light (20-25%, according to some reports).
Other climate-friendly brewing innovations include concentrated beer, which contains much less water than usual beers; the required water is mixed into the beer at the point of use. Experiments have been successful with alcohol-free beers, and R&D work with regular beers is continuing. Another innovation is that of creating hop flavours from splicing the DNA of basil and mint plants (both of which can be grown with much less water than very thirsty hop plants) into the DNA of brewer’s yeast. Brewery staff apparently felt the resulting brew was more hoppy than regularly-brewed beer.
There will always be good beer. It might not be the same as what you are drinking now, but there are too many creative, dedicated craftspeople in the industry for that not to occur. And there will certainly be lots of exciting new beers to try. Cheers to that!
Now take what you’ve learned and play today’s Beer and Climate Change Trivia Quiz of the Day:
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