Climate change endangers hops, beer production
Every year, global climate change affects the planet in significant ways; ozone depletion, glacial retreat, rising sea levels and threats to the global food supply make life in the coming century look increasingly dreary as global warming continues on its projected path. With all these threats to the planet, one in particular is causing a stir among college students both on and off the Hill: the threat to beer production.
Increasing global temperatures put stable agricultural systems at risk because crops require certain growing conditions that are compromised by climate change. One necessary crop for brewing that is currently at risk is the hop plant, Humulus lupulus, whose flower cones are used as flavoring and preservative agents in the production of nearly all beers. Hops are highly regarded among brewers for their ability to balance the sweetness of malt, another universal brewing ingredient, against their own bitter and tangy flavor.
Due to global climate change, warmer springs and milder winters cause the hop plant to sprout early, stagnate and yield a smaller harvest. Although changes in temperature appear modest, hops quality has declined, with acidity decreasing continuously without signs of stabilizing. To combat the ensuing crisis, scientists are trying to breed hardier varieties of the hop plant, and the industry is providing irrigation to crops requiring an additional amount of water.
Regardless of industry efforts, the global supply of hops will continue to dwindle in both quantity and quality as temperatures rise. Further, the base of consumers that drink hops products will remain the same, or even increase with population growth. According to supply and demand principles, the price of beers is increasing and will continue to do so steadily—especially among brewers that use of larger hops quantities in their products.
For the Oak Pond Brewery Company (OPB) outside of Skowhegan, hops is a staple of its portfolio of products. “A brewer plays with two things [malt and hops], and those are like yin and yang,” OPB owner and brewer, Don Chandler. said. “If you take one away, you make something else.” In 2008, the brewery noted a price increase, the result of significant draught during that year. “It was a real problem for a while,” Chandler said. However, Chandler noted that the price of hops has remained “fairly even,” increasingly only slightly over the past two years. Though the company absorbs the loss, Chandler has not noticed a decline in the quality of the hops that OPB uses. “It’s a natural crop and things vary anyway,” he said.
The economic consequences of global warming manifest themselves in large and small ways that affect consumers in American society; hopefully economic incentives will help to raise awareness of the continuing threat to the planet. The United States is currently the world’s second largest producer of hops behind Germany, yet the downward trend is expected to result in lost jobs and narrower access to more expensive hops brews.
For home brewer Christy Crocker of Hallowell, a decline in the local hops harvest has yet to manifest itself in her own brews. Crocker and her family began home brewing several years ago when a Christmas tradition of making their own gifts inspired Crocker to make her very own batch of beer for her husband. Two Christmases ago, Crocker surprised her husband when she built a trellis in their suburban backyard and presented him with three hop plant varieties. Though the plants have yielded only enough hops to brew a batch or two of beer, they are expected to start producing more flower cones in the coming years. “It’s never going to be a farm,” Crocker said of her modest crops. “Because it’s so small, I can control the climate at the local level. I can’t imagine the effect on grand scale production, at least not in our lifetime.”
The hop plant is just one of many other crops, plants and animals that global warming continues to affect. Increasing global temperatures will change the face of agriculture, and future generations will be left to contend with the economic, social, and cultural implications of climate change.
“Unfortunately I do think we will eventually see the effects of climate change on the hops production in America and that will result in higher beer prices for domestic beers,” said Environmental Coalition Co-President Sarah Sorenson ’11. “Sure we will continue to buy beer [… but hopefully] it will provoke conversation and debate over what these changes are attributed to, and hopefully the discourse will gravitate towards climate change.”
Because alcohol consumption remains an integral part of American culture, environmental activists hope that a society enamored with the bottle will become aware of and interested in combating global climate change. “I think that it is sometimes difficult for the majority of Americans to relate to climate change because there is nothing directly affecting them such as severe storms, drought or food shortages,” said Sorenson. “But if you tell a college student that one of the key components of their lifestyles may be affected by global climate change, you get them to listen, to think about the greater picture.”