Trouble brewing

Is climate change threatening the crops that make beer?

As the planet’s climate warms because of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere by humans, isn’t it kind of ironic that distributors in Britain were forced to ration beer earlier this summer due to a shortage of CO2? Food-grade carbon dioxide is injected into kegs to carbonate beers, and given the current climate, theoretically, you’d think we would have all the CO2 needed for brewers to make beers bubbly.

Adding insult to injury, an extreme heatwave—almost certainly made worse by Earth’s rising temperatures—has baked much of Europe and seriously damaged the year’s barley, wheat and other grain crops. So, in addition to the CO2 shortage, brewers now lack some of the grains essential to making beer. Scandinavia’s grain crop is estimated to be down 40 percent, France’s 20 percent, Italy’s 13 percent and Britain’s 12 percent. Farther east, heavy rain and floods have seriously dented the grain harvests of Ukraine, Romania and Russia. This is causing price hikes.

However, despite these recent developments, the fact remains that beer has tended to be shielded from climate anomalies, mainly because few, if any, breweries grow all their own ingredients.

Especially in the United States, beer makers, drinkers and lovers will not feel the impacts in any significant way. While a substantial portion of the malting barley grown in Europe is exported to the United States, because it is divided across so many breweries that generally also use North American Midwest barley, Northern California beer producers aren’t facing existential threat. In fact, some are using California-grown barley and hops as well.

But most breweries buy their ingredients from far afield and, usually, from sources that aggregate the year’s harvest into enormous grain and hop storage warehouses. Thus, a crop failure in one region tends to get absorbed by the entire industry.

However, increasingly erratic weather patterns—including the harshest drought in 500 years, the wettest winter in memory and, in the past 12 months, the worst heatwaves and wildfires just about anyone alive has experienced—could disrupt the local food movement. That’s especially true for breweries that invest fully in local supplies. The current crop failure in Europe illustrates the risks. So did the 2015 heat-induced failure in European hop production.

While breweries can withstand a bad crop in one region, this is quite the opposite of wine production, where one season of suboptimal weather can mean a poor harvest, or grapes of lesser quality. Indeed, wine production, both quantity and quality, can serve as a subtle barometer for weather anomalies and—if you believe in it—climate change. (The last time I discussed climate change in a beer article, a reader sent me a series of emails berating my stupidity for believing scientists when they unanimously tell us the planet is warming. He, like President Trump, said global warming is a hoax.)

It will be interesting to see how things change as some California breweries rearrange their sourcing to include more locally grown hops and barley. For the time being, beer is a luxury (some would say staple, or even essential) that Californians can count on. It still flows from taps no matter the political or economic climates, and no matter the weather.