Jenn Orgolini, sustainability director for Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery, proclaimed in 2011 that beer drinkers should worry about the climate. “If you drink beer now, the issue of climate change is impacting you right now,” she warned.
We often think of climate change as simply dialing up the global thermostat. But it also changes which crops are most profitable in certain areas, increases rainfall in some regions while causing droughts in others, and changes the way plants grow and develop.
What does that have to do with beer? Well, everything. Climate change affects how and where hops and barley can be grown. It could impact the availability of water. Artisanal brewers who rely on spontaneous fermentation and heirloom producers of hops and malt will also be forced to find ways to cope with the unpredictable weather events and temperature swings.
First, let’s look at barley. The shifting climate zones produced by climate change encourage the spread of more profitable crops into barley growing areas. Additionally, water shortages lead to reduced yields and increasing temperatures and drought conditions can alter the properties of the grain itself.
The Midwest had historically produced the majority of U.S. barley. But since the turn of the last century, Midwestern farmers began favoring a corn-soybean rotation that displaced the barley crop, driving it steadily north and west—away from the barley-friendly soil of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Corn-soybean rotation is on the move again—this time, north onto the Canadian prairie, Canada’s prime barley growing area. In 2013, farmers in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta planted 405,000 acres of corn in 2013—eight-times more than 20 years ago. It’s a no-brainer, really, for farmers: A corn-soybean rotation can yield $291–$331 per acre, whereas barley yields an average of $170–$227 per acre. With Canadian researchers predicting that mean annual temperatures will climb by as much as 5°F by 2050, it’s a safe bet that more and more land once dedicated to barley will soon be sown with more profitable crops.
Another way climate change may be negatively impacting barley is through accelerated drought conditions. Senior New Zealand Climate Scientist Dr. Jim Salinger cautioned attendees of the 2008 Institute of Brewing and Distilling convention in Auckland, New Zealand, that climate change-driven drought conditions were threatening Australia’s barley crop. He warned that conditions in Australia and New Zealand “will only get worse for the brewing industry” over the next 30 years, possibly forcing breweries to one day look for new varieties of barley to use.
Drought conditions may also alter the starch and enzyme properties of barley, says Australian agronomist Peter W. Gous and the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, thereby reducing its suitability for brewing.
A 2009 article1 in the science journal Nature, reports that climate zones are moving north by 3.8 feet each day, or a quarter mile per year. This is having a big impact in a small area of Belgium responsible for some of the world’s most unique and coveted beers. Reviewers at Beeradvocate.com rate Brussels’ Brasserie Cantillon’s lambic beers No. 1; on Ratebeer.com, they garner five of the top 10 spots. Like all Lambic brewers, Cantillon cools its beer in open coolships, allowing wild yeast and bacteria from the surrounding area to spontaneously inoculate the beer. They usually start brewing their lambics in late October, but this year an unusually warm autumn—nighttime temperatures between 10 and 15°C (50-59°F); ideally, they should be between minus 3°C and 8°C—forced Cantillon to halt production and even pour out three brews.
Cantillon head brewer Jean-Pierre Van Roy says climate change has been notable in the last 20 years. “My grandfather 50 years ago brewed from mid-October until May—but I’ve never done that in my life, and I am in my 15th season,” he recently told The Guardian. He went on to note that last year, he could not start brewing until November 10 and had to stop at the end of March. He says he thinks he can survive if he loses only a week per year, but if that increases to three weeks, he fears for the future of his brewery.
The futures of all Lambic brewers, 10 of which are located in a 14-mile Lambic brewing zone, are at stake due to increased temperatures. The zone was chosen for its unique microflora—a mix of standard and wild beer yeasts and bacteria that determine the character of Lambic beer—and temperature changes shift the ratios of those microflora. Warmer temperatures lead to too many unfavorable microflora in the air, which can spoil the beer. If climate change continues at the rate it’s currently going, within 50 years Lambic breweries will have to abandon this zone in order to produce the beer for which they’re known.
The New York Times reported this August that scientists credit global warming for intensifying the California drought by 15 to 20 percent. Unexpected victims of these decreased water supplies have been California breweries. In November 2013, Bear Republic Brewing pulled out of 15 U.S. markets and four countries after its hometown of Cloverdale told the brewery that the town did not have enough water to meet its needs. Water restrictions were costing the brewery $4,500 per day in lost revenue; they eventually had to cough up $466,143.57 to drill new wells for the city.
Another brewery forced to adapt was Lagunitas. When faced with changing their water supply from the Russian River to well water, Lagunitas decided to open a satellite brewery in Chicago. The drought also drove the Budweiser plant in Los Angeles to use reclaimed water to clean its tanks in order to save about five million gallons of water per year. AB-InBev went one step further and set a goal to reduce the number of gallons it takes to make a gallon of beer from 8 to 3.2.
Not only are hops one of beer’s main ingredients with terroir, they are also quite fussy. Hops require 15 hours of sunlight per day to grow, which restricts their growing location to between the 30th and 55th parallel. They are hardy to 20° F below zero and require a hard winter freeze and a hot summer. They thrive in a temperature range between 40° and 70° F. They need a lot of water—about three gallons per day—but too much and the leaves can develop mildew.
The Financial Times reported this summer that blistering June heat in Yakima Valley, where 70 percent of U.S. hops are grown, threatened this year’s hops crop. That heat led to water shortages and restrictions, which led to some hop growers being forced to take hopyards out of production. And although the National Agricultural Statistics service reported that U.S. 2015 hop acreage increased by 16 percent, the Capital Press, in Washington, reported that drought conditions kept the increase to just 5 percent, a number that may not meet this year’s demand. Adding to the problems is the drought has also impacted the hop plants’ terroir: less water and too much heat produced smaller cones, less lupulin, which accounts for the flavor of hops, and lower alpha acid levels, which provide hops’ bitterness.
Beyond the United States, England, Slovenia, and Germany have reported similar issues with extreme heat. The severe conditions are wilting the plants and accelerating the life cycles of pests, allowing them to produce more generations during a growing season. Yeasts, molds, mildews, viruses, bacteria, and other infections also increase when temperatures rise. All said, the drought and heat cut the 2015 European hops crop 10–20 percent; future reductions are likely if climate changes continue.
Displaced barley crops, hindered artisanal brewers, and water-deprived, heat-blasted hops crops are just a few of climate change’s negative affects on the world’s beer industry. But brewers aren’t sitting idly by, watching their livelihoods fade. Seven of the top 10 brewers in the world by volume—Anheuser-Busch InBev, SABMiller, Heineken NV, Carlsberg Group, China Resource Enterprise, Tsingtao Brewery Co., and Asahi—acknowledge climate change as a threat to their business and are taking steps to address global warming.
For SABMiller, that means reducing waste and carbon emissions. On its website, the company stated it plans to “move from one-way consumption to a more circular economic model based on reusing, recycling and eliminating waste.” Sierra Nevada and 14 other breweries signed the Brewer’s Climate Declaration—which states “tackling climate change is one of America’s greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century (and it’s simply the right thing to do)—this year, bringing the total number of breweries that have signed on to 42. The coordinated effort to combat climate change is a step in the right direction, to be sure, and something we all can raise a pint to.
 Vol. 462, No. 7276, pp.1052-1059