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Beer is about to get harder to make and more expensive

Tim Nelson
October 16, 2018

When it comes to booze, beer reigns supreme. Despite the plethora of alcoholic beverages on the market today, it doesn’t look like everyone’s favorite bread water is going away anytime soon. Or will it?

That’s the question that inspired a thought-provoking—and somewhat alarming—new study published in scientific journal Nature Plants. It explores beer production in the context of a changing climate via barley crops, a primary input for brewers. Specifically, the study used five different climate models (varying in severity of change) that forecast temperature, precipitation, soil moisture, and other weather fluctuations that could impact the worldwide growing conditions between now and the year 2100. That data was then fed into a crop yield model, which in turn provided clues about how the price of beer might fluctuate across a variety of economic conditions.

The results weren’t pretty. The models predicted a decline in global barely yield of anywhere between 3 percent and 17 percent. In the most severe climate scenario, global beer consumption would plummet 16 percent on average, falling as much as 32 percent in places like Argentina. Not only would climate change mean less barely overall, but supplies of the grain good enough to make beer (which is currently only 17 percent of annual production) would be harder to cultivate as well.

In any scenario, what beer there is left would naturally be more expensive. The average price of a pint around the world would double, though the exact price increase would vary wildly depending on a region’s access to quality barely. Even with a forecasted increase in US barley production relative to the rest of the world, the price of a pint in the States would still rise $1.94. That figure skyrockets to a $4.84 increase in Ireland, making Guinness almost unattainable for tourists and locals.

While the study’s focus on barely is new, its conclusions are consistent with existing research into the effects of climate change on crops that play a bigger role in the human diet. “There’s a pretty well-understood connection between rising temperatures, reduced water supplies and the impact on crop yields,” Caroline Sluyter, a program director at nonprofit Oldways Whole Grains Council who was not involved with the research, told CNN. “I’ve seen numbers like a 7% reduction in corn, [a] 6% reduction in wheat.”

And though it’s a forecast, the findings of this study validate the droughts and supply shortages that even the biggest players in beer production are already confronting. “We are seeing an increased level of vulnerability and some near escapes in some cases,” Budweiser’s director of agronomy Jessica Newman told Wired. “All of these things have happened periodically, but the frequency is growing.” In response, Budweiser is already hard at work developing hardier strains of barley that can survive in adverse or inconsistent weather conditions. Other brewers are already moving barely production further north in hopes of finding more favorable conditions.

Still, the issue of climate change goes far beyond brewing. If all that you have to contend with on a warmer planet defined by famine and coastal flooding is a more expensive pint, consider yourself lucky. The need for collective solutions that put self-interest aside and recognize our shared obligation to keep the planet from killing us is already the defining issue of the 21st century. Hopefully a study like this one at least encourages beer snobs to help do something about it.  

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