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On Brewing: Climate change looms for brewers and beer drinkers

By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek October 14, 2019, 11:41 am MDT

At the 2019 installment of the always Great American Beer Festival, the happily buzzed throngs cleared out of the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver less than a week before the temperature fell off the cliff from 83 to 19 degrees F in 18 short hours.

Such extreme fluctuations are increasingly frequent in the 21st century, and more extreme weather events won't be kind to the beer drinkers of the future.

A 2018 study published in Nature Plants found beer prices could skyrocket in the 21st century:

During the most severe climate events . . . our results indicate that global beer consumption would decline by 16% (0–41%) (roughly equal to the total annual beer consumption of the United States in 2011), and that beer prices would, on average, double (100–656% of recent prices).

The primary reason: lower barley yields in hot, dry years. The worst-case scenario involves yields down by 17 percent in the coming decades adding $1 to $8 to a single six-pack.

But hops are also vulnerable to climate change. A 2016 story published on NOAA's Climate.gov portal found that a heat wave in the Yakima, Washington area in summer 2015 (temperatures hit a scalding 121 degrees F) negatively impacted the yield of some hop varieties. Nevertheless, total yield was strong, as low snowpack was replaced by groundwater supplies. Germany had it worse, with production down 26 percent.

In the story, Guillaume Mauger, a scientist with the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group, called summer 2015 the "new normal" in future decades. But many brewers see climate change as not an issue of the future, but of the here and now.

"Two of the major ingredients are grown -- hops and barley -- and are affected by changes in the weather," says Brian Dunn, founder and CEO of Great Divide Brewing in Denver.  "We have quite a few concerns about global climate change."

Water is a big issue, he notes, and fossil fuels are another. "We have an obligation to not use more than what we need," he says. "We all need to do our part, because clearly we're affecting the climate of our world."

Dunn points to the 2017 barley crop, the weakest harvest on record in the U.S., and the resulting mad scramble by brewers. "Everybody had to go to Asia to get malted barley," he says.

"There's not going to be enough raw materials for enough beer -- if people are drinking beer," says Dave Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska Brewing in Durango.

But it's rarely very simple. Thibodeau says weather-related hops shortages in the last decade pushed many larger breweries towards multi-year contracts. It ensured supply, but it's also sometimes the wrong kind of supply. As tastes change, he notes, "A lot of us are paying for hops we're never going to use."

Climate-related problems in brewing pale to those in agriculture. "If we're having a hard time with it, imagine the farmers," says Thibodeau. They have to stay in business today. When you throw climate change into it, it's hard. Farming's hard enough."

At Declaration Brewing in Denver, Chief Instigating Officer Mike Blandford and Chief Hoperating Officer Greg Schlichting paint a similar picture on supply chain, but are quick to point out that there are countless factors that could affect the price of beer beyond climate change. 

"What happened to the price of beer in the last 20 years? It doubled," says Schlichting. "Because of the environment? No, because of everything else going on."

Adds Blandford: "There's so much transition in the industry. It's impossible to predict a transient situation."

Schlichting notes that the brewing industry has always been susceptible to swings in commodity prices due to extreme weather. "Is it going to be worse with climate effects? Oh, yeah," he says. "We created our problem. We're going to have to live with it."

Ska's Thibodeau is quick to point out that people have been drinking beer for thousands of years. "It's got staying power. It always has," he says. "It's not a beverage that's come and gone."

He also points out that ancient civilizations used to brew beer from water that wasn't safe to drink, and that the tradition continued with the founding fathers in the U.S. "growing barley, growing hops, making beer."

"I hope the changing climate doesn't put an end to something I think people should be making and drinking until the end of time," adds Thibodeau. "Is climate change going to destroy the most important beverage the world has ever known? I think about it a lot. It's a scary thought. It's hard to wrap your mind around it."

Thibodeau shares an optimistic viewpoint: Science could lead to paradigm-shifting solutions to climate problems. Or maybe not just science, but science plus beer.

"How many philosophies changed because of decisions made over beer?" he wonders, recalling Ska's early years after starting up in 1994. "For that first decade, we probably didn't make a decision that wasn't made over beers. It played such an important role. That's not just us -- that's humanity."

Noting that Declaration's very name is rooted in the nation's founding, Blandford says, "Beer has served as a platform for social and political change. It's like a skeleton key."

Schlichting continues on that line of thought: "Alcohol loosens lips enough that it helps people get thoughts out there that might be contrarian."

Several scientific studies back this up, including one by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2012 that found people with a 0.075 percent blood-alcohol content were more creative problem solvers than the stone-sober control group. "It's kind of like playing pool: You're good after one and a half beers," laughs Schlichting. 

He also cites evidence of brewing found at Göbekli Tepe, an 11,000-year-old cultic feasting site in Turkey and notes, "You can argue beer is the reason we came out of the Stone Age and became society-based."

Could beer save us from climate doom? "I sure hope so," answers Schlichting.

In the immortal words of Homer Simpson: "To alcohol! The cause of -- and solution -- to all of life's problems."

Eric Peterson is editor of BreweryWeek and CompanyWeek. Reach him at rambleusa@gmail.com.

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