COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — From football tailgates to holiday parties, the drink menu often takes top priority, and beer is always a favorite. But as shifts in the weather force agriculture to adapt, the changing climate may not only impact the cost of your favorite brew, but the taste, too.
“The future of this brewing industry is really kind of in a little jeopardy right now because of it,” said Chris Davison, head brewer at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing in Columbus, “especially in regions out west where water is a little more scarce than it is in Ohio.”
Beer has four key ingredients: water, hops, barley, and yeast. Western states like California, Colorado, and Oregon are among the nation’s top craft beer-producing states, according to the Brewers Association.
But they’re also among the most threatened by climate change.
The western U.S. is hurting from a 20-year megadrought — worsened by climate change — that has produced record-breaking wildfires, drained rivers and reservoirs, and has begun to upend agriculture. Nearly all of the west is in some kind of drought condition as of this week, according to the latest federal report.
For Ohio brewers like Wolf’s Ridge, water is easy to come by locally, but hops and barley are sourced from around the world.
“I’m getting barley from as close to home as Marysville, Ohio, and as far away as Germany or England,” Davison said. “I’m getting hops from North America, New Zealand, the continental European Union and even South Africa.”
That means natural disasters fueled by climate change — like wildfires, floods, and hailstorms — threaten beer worldwide. Wildfires can ravage hop farms, Davison noted, “which reduces supply, increases our cost, which we then have to pass on to the consumer.”
“So, it can spiral out of control pretty quickly.”
In the U.S., 96% of hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, according to the Hop Growers of America trade group. Washington leads with 69%, ahead of Idaho at 14% and Oregon at 13%.
All three states have seen more hot, dry, and windy days in the past half-century, according to Climate Central. In central Washington, for example, these days most conducive for wildfires have increased nearly two weeks since 1973.
Along with reducing supply and increasing the price of beer, wildfires can also alter its taste, Davison said. “Smoke taint,” he said, happens where there is so much wildfire smoke in the air that the hop plants absorb it, lending “a smoky flavor to your beer unintentionally, which is definitely not very good.”
Davison said price impacts and smoke taint are more of future worry, but Wolf’s Ridge has already noticed problems bubble to the surface.
“We’re seeing kind of like a double whammy where we’re seeing greater and greater flavor impact on our raw materials,” he said, plus “wildfires and droughts and whatnot affecting our pricing.”
How brewers are fighting climate change
Climate change, which includes global warming, is driven by carbon emissions. As human activity like cars and factories pumps heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, air temperatures warm. In the western U.S., for example, warmer temperatures have worsened the megadrought.
One of the biggest ways individual people can fight climate change, then, is to reduce their own carbon output. Davison said brewers, including himself, are already looking at ways they can help.
“We’re looking into some things that are expensive but long-term could pay off, like reclaiming carbon dioxide gas,” he said.
The brewing process produces a lot of CO2, Davison explained, as yeast ferments in massive metal tanks. Larger breweries with the right equipment, he said, can reclaim that CO2 and “use that to later carbonate your beer instead of buying it bulk by the truckload twice a week like we are currently doing to carbonate our beer and vent our tanks.”
One large, nationally-known brewery is already raising awareness about climate change, specifically smoke taint. Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing this fall released a version of its popular “Fat Tire” ale called “Torched Earth.”
The company says it “uses the kind of ingredients that would be available in a climate-ravaged future, including smoke-tainted water, drought-resistant grains, shelf-stable extracts and dandelion weeds.”
“Although beer will be the least of our worries in a full-on climate crisis,” New Belgium notes, “we’re brewers at heart and just can’t imagine a world of ‘torched beer’ like this. That’s why we need to act now.”
In the same vein, Columbus brewery North High Brewing released their “Cover Crop” beer three years ago in partnership with the Ohio Farm Bureau. Brewed with all-Ohio malt and hops, it’s a nod to farmers who plant cover crops in the offseason to limit erosion and carbon emissions from fields.
A small-scale thing Davison said Wolf’s Ridge does that most breweries do is donate grain to local farmers to feed cattle. The brewery has also tried compositing — taking leftover organic material and adding it to soil — but he said their operation was too big for the people they were giving the waste to.
“We looked really heavily into it and invested in it and the people we were giving compost to couldn’t keep up with us,” Davison said.
Sustainability efforts are not limited to Columbus breweries. Davison mentioned Rhinegeist Brewery in Cincinnati, which takes an active role with wastewater treatment.
“They can send cleaner water back to the city rather than dumping a lot of chemicals or yeast and hops and solids into that stream which the city then has to filter out,” he said.
Rhinegeist’s other sustainability programs include teaching people how to create rain barrels using the brewery’s used 55-gallon fruit juice drums and growing their own cocktail herbs on the brewery roof.
How to help before and after you drink
Things that beer drinkers can do to fight climate change with sustainability, Davison said, range from composting household waste to installing solar panels on the roof. A small thing that makes a big impact, though, is shopping local.
“If you drink locally, that beer is traveling a much less, shorter distance to get to your bar or your local grocery store,” he said.
And when you’re done with a six-pack, there’s a simple way to keep reducing your carbon footprint.
“Recycle,” Davison said. “Most breweries are using cans these days, and cans are infinitely recyclable. And so, please recycle all of your cans.”
While recycling is an easy way to help the environment, not everything can be thrown into those blue and green bins. For example: the plastic topper keeping your six-pack of beer together.
“They’re called PakTechs,” Davison said. “They’re brightly colored, hard pieces of plastic that clamp on to the top of cans that most craft brewer use. Those are not actually recyclable in your local recycling.”
A lot of local breweries, he said, are now becoming hubs for PakTech recycling. Wolf’s Ridge recently signed up, and Land-Grant Brewing in Franklinton has a bin outside their building.
“We can’t even reuse them through our equipment because once (a PakTech top) gets used once, it gets bent,” Davison explained. “But, we can send it back to them or they can melt it down and reuse it, rather than throwing it and having it land in a landfill. Small steps on the consumer level.”