The Future of Beer and the Environment

I recently had the pleasure of traveling to Asheville, North Carolina for a conference focused on environmental protection. Asheville is a mecca for micro-breweries and is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains next to the French Broad River. The city is also home to Citizen Vinyl, a company and communal space worth checking out thanks to its record press facility, café, bar, recording studio, and record store.

Asheville’s revitalization and thriving brewery scene largely derive from an environmental restoration project of its neighboring river and watershed thanks to visionaries, like Karen Cragnolin. Prior to cleaning up the river, the French Broad was largely untapped by Asheville’s economy and neglected as part of its outdoor scene and landscape. Currently, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The French Broad River is now an artery of clean water used to brew beer at Asheville’s 50 or so breweries and a destination for a variety of recreational activities, such as white water rafting and fishing.

Real change started to occur in the 1980s through a series of separate but interrelated actions and plans, such as the emergence of the Asheville Riverfront Plan, the City of Asheville 2010 Plan, the “one more day” campaign from the city’s chamber of commerce, as well as a series of community charettes. Problems and solutions coalesced at Asheville’s riverfront, a logical place to Cragnolin since, “The river is where economic development, land use planning and environmental concerns meet and marry.”

With the local community and government working together, and investments from mega-breweries and climate conscious companies like New Belgium, the French Broad is now the pearl in Asheville’s oyster. A recent news article, from a local paper, boasts the French Broad has a whopping economic impact of $3.8 billion annually. That’s a far cry from where one of the Earth’s oldest rivers had been just a few decades earlier with major water quality issues.

The reason this story is so compelling is because it’s a perfect example of how cleaning up a river and protecting the environment can lead to the revitalization of a city and create a burgeoning beer scene. That’s the positive spin. Another way to look at it is if we don’t see more projects like this and incremental improvements in the battle to combat climate change, everything may be different – including beer.

In reading a recent Craft Beer & Brewing article, I was intrigued by a concept and beer that was meant to fail. In Spring 2021, New Belgium released Fat Tire Torched Earth, a small batch intended to taste bad, made with smoke tainted-water and drought-tolerant grains. Torched Earth is meant to provide us a glimpse of what beer may taste like once climate change desolates agriculture and depletes the water supply. It’s a haunting reminder that if we don’t protect the environment now, our favorite beverage will eventually taste radically different. Check out this video from New Belgium to learn more.

If not inspired by the global mission to protect the environment, or alarmed by climate science, perhaps higher prices will change behavior. Significant but isolated doomsday scenarios have played out in parts of the world, such as in western Canada in 2021, where extreme heat and drought caused barley production to decrease by record numbers. As depicted in the graph below, the 2021 yield was 37% lower than last year and 21% lower than the 10-year average. If situations like these become trends and farmers can't produce the fundamental ingredients in beer, like barley, then not only will beer supply go down, but prices will go up.

A scientific journal in Nature Plants dives deeper into predictive modeling and provides a glimpse into what beer production and prices could look like for the rest of this century. In summary, Earth System Models (ESM) developed an extreme events severity index (five projections from 2010-2099) for barley based on extremes in historical data from 1981 to 2010, and then used it to characterize the frequency and severity of concurrent drought and heatwaves under climate change. Extreme events years were classified as those with concurrent drought and heat during the barley-growing season, in areas where barley is now grown, and more severe than 100-year events in the historical record.

To go full nerd and learn more about the ESM results, you can access the publication here – Nature Plants Article on Decreases in Global Beer Supply.

Per the report, “In conclusion, concurrent extremes of drought and heat can be anticipated to cause both substantial decreases in beer consumption and increases in beer price. The frequency and severity of these extreme events, which are correlated with future increases in mean surface temperature, increase under climate change. Although the effects on beer may seem inconsequential in comparison to many of the other—some life-threatening—impacts of climate change, there is nonetheless something fundamental in the cross-cultural appreciation of beer. For perhaps many millennia45,46, and still at present for many people, beer has been an important component of social gatherings and human celebration. Although it may be argued that consuming less beer is not disastrous—and may even have health benefits—there is little doubt that for millions of people around the world, the climate impacts on beer consumption will add insult to injury.”

Said more plainly, what better reason to combat climate change and protect the environment, than to save beer?!

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