COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — From football tailgates to holiday parties, the drink menu often takes top priority, and beer is always a favorite. The changing climate can have a significant impact on the price and quality of your favorite beer, as well as the way it tastes.
“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.”
There are four main ingredients to beer: water, hops and barley. 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. According to the most recent federal report, almost all of the west is currently in some type of drought.
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.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 96% are grown in the Pacific Northwest. Hop Growers of America trade group. Washington is the leader with 69%, Idaho at 14%, and Oregon at 13%.
According to a report by The Weather Channel, all three states have experienced more hot, dry, and windy days over the past half-century. Climate Central. For example, in central Washington, the days most favorable for wildfires are almost two weeks longer than 1973.
Davison stated that wildfires can affect beer’s taste and supply, as well as its price. “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 combat climate change
Carbon emissions are the main driver of climate change, including global warming. Air temperatures rise as heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere by human activity, such as factories and cars. Warmer temperatures have exacerbated the megadrought in the western U.S.
The best way individuals can combat climate change is to reduce their carbon emissions. Davison said that many brewers are already looking for ways to help.
“We’re looking into some things that are expensive but long-term could pay off, like reclaiming carbon dioxide gas,” he said.
Davison explained that the brewing process creates a lot of carbon dioxide because yeast ferments in large 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 well-known, large brewery is raising awareness about climate change, particularly 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 extend beyond Columbus breweries. Davison also mentioned Rhinegeist Brewery of Cincinnati, which is active in 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 afterwards you drink
Davison stated that beer drinkers can take steps to combat climate change and make their homes more sustainable by composting household waste and installing solar panels on their roofs. Shopping local is a small but significant thing that can make a big difference.
“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 of helping the environment, not all recyclables can be put in those blue and green bins. For example, the plastic top that holds 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.”
He stated that PakTech recycling is becoming a major focus for many local breweries. 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.”
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