Climate change is bad for the beer business. Hotter summers and shorter winters are already squeezing brewers, expanding costs in sometimes subtle ways. And as our planet heats up faster, we can expect bigger challenges that fundamentally change the economics of beer.
The immediate impacts of climate change on brewing affect each of beer’s three core ingredients: barley, hops, and water, which all become more scarce and more expensive.
Barley, like most cereals, can’t stand extreme heat or droughts. But much of it comes from regions projected to see more of both: the upper Midwest and Northern Rockies. In Montana, for example, farmers have already reduced their exposure to heat and drought by planting less barley. For some growers, conditions have warmed enough to plant soybeans or corn instead, which is good news for farms because both crops are more typically profitable. If that continues, and less and less barley is grown across the U.S., demand from buyers—particularly brewers—could nudge prices higher and higher. Maybe, if the prices eventually climb high enough, more farmers might be convinced to take a chance on barley. But their risk of crop loss to extreme conditions will only increase over time, and with it the risk that there won’t be enough American barley available to brewers at any price.
American hops come mainly from the eastern slopes of the Cascades, the bulk of the crop from Washington. Most varieties don’t like excess heat, but growing regions in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are all seeing higher temperatures year after year. Eventually, yields will drop or farmers may diversify and produce less; either way, it means American hops will cost brewers more. At least for now, farmers can compensate for hotter conditions with extra water (beer’s third core ingredient). Boosting irrigation supplies can keep hops happier in a heat wave—but at a cost.
First, water isn’t free. Second, our warming climate is shifting where water comes from. The western snowpack has been mostly declining for decades, which means snowmelt is contributing less to the surface water supply available in the region for irrigation, especially in summertime. Farmers can make up the difference with groundwater, but groundwater generally has much higher mineral content than surface water. It tastes different, and so does anything grown in it, including hops. There might be options for brewers who need hops (and beer) to taste the way they want: specialty growers, new sources, or imports. They’ll probably all cost more, though. And so will the clean, pure, good-tasting water that breweries depend on directly.
There are solutions to help brewers weather the challenges of changing climate, but they all need investment. Researchers are working to develop drought- and pest-resistant strains of barley. Companies, including Anheuser-Busch InBev, are funding water preservation efforts, especially in the American West. Breweries around the country are turning to renewable energy and electric fleets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Improved recycling programs can reduce production demands for glass, a uniquely big part of the industry’s environmental footprint. Over time, these measures should add up to more efficient, more resilient operations, but they’ll all hit brewers’ bottom lines—adding another set of costs of doing business in a warmer world.
Sean Sublette is an award-winning meteorologist working on Climate Central’s Climate Matters program, helping meteorologists and journalists report on climate impacts and solutions in ways that are local, immediate, and personal—grounded in the latest science.