Beer may have saved humanity, but soon, humanity may need to save beer. As temperatures and weather patterns change some of the crops most vital to beer’s creation, such as hops and malting barley, are threatened by inconsistent changes in weather. The percentage of the population affected by drought has nearly doubled over the last 40 years, indiscriminately affecting all crops. And scientific researchers predict that barley yields will decrease as much as 3 to 17 percent globally in the coming years. In the wake of rapid environmental degradation, scientists, agrarians, and vendors are doing what they can to secure beer’s beloved resources. But with such unpredictable weather patterns, academics in scientific fields are pushing technological innovations into new environments that may help save a much-loved alcoholic beverage.
The beer industry in the United States accounts for 1.9 percent of its national GDP, or $350 billion. In countries ranging from the Czech Republic to Namibia, beer is consumed at a rate of over 100 liters per capita, or 208 pints per person. But it is not the only food threatened by climate change: Chocolate, avocados, lobster and rice are falling prey to depletion as waters warm and disappear, weather gets more extreme and wetter areas get wetter while drier areas get drier. Both coffee and wine are in peril, as rising temperatures are making coffee plants more vulnerable to destructive rust, and high heat threatens the quantity and quality of beans and grapes, alike. There is even growing concern for the iconic Bloody Mary: tomatoes, horseradish, lemons, hot sauce, vodka, and black pepper are each experiencing environmental backlash to the point where the drink may never be the same.
The Yakima Valley in Washington State is responsible for 75 percent of the hops that are grown in the United States. The valley’s hops are widely consumed internationally, and are often used to market high-quality beer. But erratic weather patterns are making production practices equally unpredictable, with some harvest seasons yielding significantly more than others. In order to grow, hops require a considerable amount of water, meaning they will be ill-suited for our climate-changed future. Julie Vano, a hydrologist who studies the region, writes that “climate change is expected to cause continued decline in snowpack and earlier snowmelt, resulting in reduced water supplies.” As a result, the reservoir system in the Yakima Valley is projected to become increasingly unable to meet water demand within the region, including what’s needed by hops farmers. As per Vano’s predictions, water shortages will go from occurring one in every four years to two out of every three by the 2080s, which will make traditional hops farming extremely difficult, if not impossible. Farmers in the region saw hints of thisin 2015, when an abnormally warm winter starved the valley of water. Similar conditions have also affected hops in other popular growing regions, such as in Germany, a country which supplies hops to brewers throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. And because the United States is the largest international producer of hops, the consequences appeared ominous for beer.
Recently, however, hops harvesting has taken steps to move indoors. Researchers like Bill Bauerle at Colorado State University have begun growing hops hydroponically, which allows growers to control the environment in which the hops grow, thereby shielding production from inconsistent weather patterns. By controlling the environment in which hops are grown, Bauerle’s team is changing the scale at which hops are produced. He is able to harvest fresh hops five times a year (as opposed to once a year outdoors) and in any geographic region where a hydroponic greenhouse could be built. This also allows breweries to have local, tailor-made, fresh hops at points in the year when they otherwise would not.
Like hops, malting barley also faces an uncertain future due to the stringent growing requirements necessary to make it of a malt quality. The grain thrives off of warm days and cool nights, without much rainfall or humidity speckled in between. However, when these climate conditions change, the grain is at risk of sprouting too early or containing too much protein for it to be eligible to make malt, with variable weather being its ultimate foe.
In Montana, bumper stickers that read, “no barley, no beer” appear sporadically around barley-farming towns. The crop has been in turmoil since 2014, when irregular weather made the barley sprout too early for it to be malted. Barley production in the U.S. has been up and down ever since, with 2017 being its lowest production year on record due to drought. Many parts of Europe are also seeing problems with the production of malting barley. As analyst Scott Casey told the Financial Times: “in some places the crop is just dying.”
Erik Somerfeld, a farmer in Powers, Montana who grows malting barley, told The Outline in an email that this year was the first year he and other barley farmers were offered bonuses from malting companies to disclose more information about how their growing practices were geared towards sustainability. Such monetary incentives are in response to intensified consumer demand for more sustainable products; while hops may have a hydroponic future, the same is tentative for barley. According to Heiner Leith at the Department of Plant Sciences at University of California, Davis it is “far-fetched” to imagine malting barley grown indoors, as it would require miles-worth of warehouses.
Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University microbiologist at and a pioneer of the concept of vertical farming, in which crops are grown in vertical layers in a controlled environment, disagrees. He and his team are currently studying how much space would be needed to grow wheat — an ingredient that not only can be used in beer, but is also an alternative malting barley — in an indoor vertical-farm structure. Should his team figure out how much space it would take to create these growing structures, Despommier said it would not take long for malting barley to follow suit, as the crop is both at risk and of high monetary value. Already entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos,Larry Ellison and Kimbal Musk (brother of Elon) are investing in the emerging multi-billion dollar industry.
Infrastructural changes are also not the only potential solutions for beer’s future. The start-up Berkeley Brewing Science, run by two UC-Berkeley biologists, is aiming to make hoppy beer without using real hops by using the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 on fermentation yeast. Adding genes derived from mint and basil to the yeast makes it fragrant with a hop-like flavor, eliminating the need for actual hops. A blind taste-test conducted on employees of the Lagunitas Brewing Company concluded that beer made with synthetic hops tasted even more hoppy than beers which used hops derived from the natural source.
Despommier’s vertical farming vision rests on the optimistic premise that, “there is nothing that cannot be grown indoors,” and he reiterated this point many times over when discussing what’s next for beer. To that end, it is clear that due to perilous changes in the natural environment, futuristic practices in food production will continue to emerge, and beer is an ideal test subject.