Climate Change—How will it affect beer production

At the most serious climate event in this study, researchers estimated that global beer consumption would decrease by 16%. That’s about eight billion gallons of beer, about the same as the United States consumes in a year. Even in less extreme climatic events, researchers estimated that beer consumption would decrease by 4%.

In terms of increased costs, researchers estimated that serious climate events could double the price of beer. In less extreme climate events, prices were projected to rise by 15%.

Researchers have acknowledged that climate change has more important consequences than the impact on beer, but studying beer may resonate with a larger audience.  The potential impact is not limited to consumption and price. Warm climates can also change the taste of beer.

Global Warming in Review

In its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consisting of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the support of the  United Nations; concluded there’s a 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.  This global warming trend, observed since the mid-20th century, is attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, due to human expansion.  This “greenhouse effect” is warming when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space.  Water vapor, Carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane, Nitrous oxide, and Chlorofluorocarbons(CFCs) block heat from escaping the atmosphere.  With the exception of water vapor, all other contributing factors are driven by industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon, yet have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to about 417 parts per million in the last 151 years.

Changes in daily and seasonal temperature patterns—warmer nights, earlier springs—disrupt how plants function, hurt crop yields, affects the cost of the ingredients, and affect how beer tastes.

Nights are warming faster than days due to something called the “boundary layer effect,” which basically means that subtle changes in daytime temperature are amplified at night. Nights where the temperature dips below freezing (32°F) has decreased over the last 50 years. These warmer nights affect flower developmental processes which occur during the nighttime hours to protect them from the heat of the day.

Plants fight bacteria, fungi, or bugs by producing chemical compounds. Interestingly, these compounds are what we associate with flavor. Many of the compounds that give hop plants their distinctive tastes are also defense compounds. Derivatives of Myrcene and Humulene, which give that ‘hoppy smell’ are antibacterial and antimicrobial compounds. The distinctive hoppy smell of beers comes from the byproduct chemicals that are released as these compounds break down in the brewing process. If the nights aren’t cooling off, fungal and bacterial pests get extra time to grow and attack plants.

Climate Temperatures for Artisanal brewers in Belgium are at risk of extinction because of warm autumn temperatures that reduce the brewing season available for open air vats, which allows the brew to cool off outside, so it will pick up natural yeasts from the environment. But it only works if the temperatures are right, ideally between 26-46 degrees Fahrenheit. Fifty years ago, the brewing season lasted from mid-October through May, now the season runs November to March.

Impacts of Climate Change on Barley

In recent years, droughts have decimated barley fields or driven up protein content which reduces ease of brewing. Meanwhile, warm temperatures and late season rains have caused pre-harvest sprouting across barley growing regions, rendering barley useless for malt. Forcing growers to sell at a reduced price for livestock feed impacting their livelihoods and the price and availability of malt for craft brewers.

A 2006 heat wave in Europe saw yields drop by a quarter, and prices rise by 40 percent. Government regulation and incentives are pushing farmers towards biofuel crops like rapeseed, forcing a transition in land use away from barley.

In the German brewing industry, the two years of extremes, 2018 and 2019, led in part to noticeable drops in quality where the successful saccharification of malt starch in the brewhouse is concerned.  Despite the generally good enzymatic equipment, there were yield losses, low levels of final fermentation and extended saccharification periods, which had a noticeable negative effect on the quality of the beer. It is likely that the extreme climate conditions during the grain-filling phase resulted in a change in the starch structure of the malting barley.

In many ways “starch,” the main component of barleycorn at around 65 percent, is extremely relevant in this regard.  Its quality affects not only the residual sweetness, depth of flavor and body of a beer; ultimately, the amount of fermentable sugar also determines how much alcohol there will be after fermentation.

The 2018 heat wave, followed by a similarly hot 2019 in Germany, seem to have had an effect on the synthesis of starch and led to increased problems for various companies.  Abiotic stress during the growth of the plant, particularly dryness and heat, has a significant effect on the individual starch synthesis pathways.  Investigations into the effects of dryness on the size of starch grains show water scarcity in barley led to a significant decrease in size.  Internal structure of starch itself can vary greatly from location to location within the same plant genus due to differing weather conditions.  These weather-related conditions, result in fluctuations in the sugar composition of the wort depending on the enzymatic conversion of the starch.

According to a study by co-author Steven Davis, UC Irvine associate professor of Earth system science; his research team modeled scenarios based on current and expected future levels of fossil fuel burning and carbon dioxide emissions.  In the worst case, parts of the world where barley is grown including the northern Great Plains, Canadian prairies, Europe, Australia and the Asian steppe were projected to experience more frequent concurrent droughts and heat waves, causing declines in crop yields of 3 to 17 percent.

Prices will go up the most in such wealthy, beer-loving countries as Belgium, Canada, Denmark and Poland. For example, Davis said, during drought years, residents of Ireland could need to bring the equivalent of an extra $20 to the store to buy a six-pack.  Our results show that in the most severe climate events, the supply of beer could decline by about 16 percent in years when droughts and heat waves strike.”

Global warming poses a serious challenge to the global barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) supply, in 2018 and 2019, large parts of Europe were affected by periods of massive drought as more than 60% of the world’s barley production is provided by Europe, most of it grown under rainfed conditions.

European beverage producers typically use spring barley for malting due to its low protein content and thus more fermentable portion of sugar.  However, spring barley has its most sensitive periods during flowering and grain filling around the summer months, hence there is a high risk of yield loss and crop failure in extremely dry years.  In 2018, Germany, the largest producer of spring barley in Europe, experienced its warmest year ever recorded in the 138 years of modern temperature records, ultimately resulting in the lowest cereal yield since 1994 and creating existence-threatening conditions for many farmers across the country.

Total precipitation at the sampling site in 2017 was 573.9 L/m2, and in 2018 was a total of 377.1 L/m2.  2018 summer months had 48 days with maximum temperatures above 25 °C while 2017 had only 28 days.

Biological effects of extreme heat and lack of water

• Stomatal closure in response to drought stress reduces water loss caused by transpiration but also leads to CO2 being ‘trapped’ inside the leaf’s internal air spaces. The closed stomata force the enzyme to process more of the heavy 13CO2, as the trapped CO2 is recycled

• Lipid amounts in the grain rise.

• Moisture is reduced

• Starch is reduced

• Betaine (trimethylglycine) accumulation can be explained by the function of the plant hormone abscisic acid (ABA), which not only induces stomatal closure to prevent water loss but was also found to increase expression of betaine aldehyde dehydrogenase (BADH).

Ratio of starches to proteins to lipids is essential. For example, barley varieties with high protein content in their seeds are less desirable for beer production.  But even grain varieties that are optimal for beer production have altered protein and starch ratios when they are grown under stress conditions such as heat and drought.

Not Enough Hops:

Hops, a flavoring ingredient in the vast majority of beers, is particularly susceptible to climate change.  A scientific study concluded in the Czech Republic even modest global warming has stagnated hop yields, and led to quality declines for their prized Saaz hops.

Most American hops are cultivated in Washington’s Yakima Valley, where warmer temperatures and drought conditions threaten crop yields.  In 2017 the drought affected PNW(Pacific North West) hops, in 2018 an increased number of pests inflicted damage, and in 2020 severe wildfires in the region resulted in smoke taint affecting hops in some areas.

Hop alternatives:

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) considered a weed in some parts of the world but used in the Middle Ages as a part of, “gruit,” a mixture of herbs used to flavor beer and some liquors.  Yarrow is very good for bittering a beer and has more of a lively effect on the beer compared to hops.

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is a small aromatic plant that is found in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere.  It has been used to flavor of food, traditional Chinese medicine, gruit blends, and was used for brewing beer in mediaeval times.  “Mugwort,” loosely translates to “herb of the mug.”  Mugwort preserves and bitters the beer in a similar way to hops, but adds a very distinctive and unique flavor.

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) found in temperate regions of Eurasia, North Africa, the United States and Canada.  A medium-sized plant often used to flavor spirits, one of the key ingredients in absinthe, and it is often used to make bitters.  Due to its extremely bitter flavor should be used with caution when added to beer because of the neurotoxin (thujone).  It has been used in England as an alternative to hops since the 18th-Century.

Other plant varieties that could be considered are Tea (Camellia sinensis), Sweet Gale (Myrica gale), Heather (Calluna vulgaris), Labrador Tea (Rhododendron tomentosum), and many varieties of herbs for aroma like rosemary, chamomile, juniper berries, and ginger.


In the U.S., the West Coast’s ongoing drought has breweries nervous that they will be forced to switch from surface water to underground sources, if brewing operations are forced to stop drawing water from the Russian River, and switch to mineral-heavy well water instead, Mineral-heavy groundwater supplies can sometimes affect the taste of the beer, and not in a good way; one spokesperson referred to it as “like brewing with Alka-Seltzer.” 

Scarcity of fresh water is a major problem around the world.  The World Economic Forum has named water crises the most significant source of global risk.  Erratic weather patterns affect snowpack, rate of snow melt and stream flows, and therefore water availability.  The Climate Impact Group predicts that there will be water shortages in Washington State more years than not by the 2080s.  Wildfires in the West leave charred slopes vulnerable to soil erosion which affects water quality, availability, and price.  Water supplies in Colorado have been affected by all of these issues mentioned above in 2012, 2013, and 2020.

Carbon Costs:

The current central estimate of the social cost of carbon is over $50 per ton in today’s dollars. While this is the most robust and credible figure available, it does not yet include all of the widely recognized and accepted scientific and economic impacts of climate change.  The social cost of carbon is an estimate of the economic costs, or damages, of emitting one additional ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and thus the benefits of reducing emissions.  The estimate informs policy makers who control billions of dollars of policy and investment decisions in the United States and abroad.

Potential Solutions for Breweries to Reduce their Carbon Footprint

Young Henrys co-founder Oscar McMahon and Dr. Janice McCaughly, uses algae to consume the CO2 produced by the brewing process.  Tanks of algae which contain nearly five million microalgae cells absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide that Young Henrys fermentation vessels produce.  The algae then uses light to convert the inorganic molecules into an organic one, “glucose.”  In the process, the algae produces breathable oxygen, as well as biomass usable as a nutritional component, or even for plastic fibers.  In total, a single one of Young Henrys breweries can produce as much oxygen as a hectare of Australian forest via photo synthesis.

Carlsberg is creating an on-pack donation so that 50p ($0.66 USD) from every special edition Carlsberg pack will go to WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) to support the restoration of seagrass.  The UK has already lost up to 92% of its seagrass in the last century and 85% of its saltmarshes.

According to the WWF, rising sea levels, storms and flooding driven by climate change has placed more than £12bn of the UK’s economy at risk, while almost 2.5 million homes in the UK could suffer from flooding by 2050.  Carlsberg is working towards its Together Towards Zero sustainability strategy, which includes targets to reduce water consumption by 25% in breweries, with the more ambitious targets placed on high-risk sites.  As a result, water consumption below 2 hl/hl should be achieved – well below the global best practice average of 3.4hl/hl. As of 2020, the company has slashed carbon emissions across its group by 13% over a 12-month period, and 30% since 2015, as it pushes towards its aim to achieve zero emissions at breweries.

Anheuser-Busch InBev, announced a partnership with the small biotech company Benson Hill Biosystems. AB InBev will contribute genetic information on the myriad of barley strains in its library, and on their various traits, their genotypes, and phenotypes.  Benson Hill Biosystems will use its software to pick through all those genes and suggest strains that might make sense to cross together.  It’s called directed breeding—using genomic information to jump the queue of traditional, years-long breeding techniques.


In this Decade of Action, we are committing to accelerating our actions to address climate change.  We aim to be carbon neutral in our production sites by 2030 in order to meet the 1.5°C goal set by the Paris Agreement.  We will further reduce our emissions through energy efficiency and speed up the transition towards renewable energy, per ”Heineken’s CEO and Chairman of the Executive Board Dolf van den Brink.”

HEINEKEN has partnered to build a wind farm in Finland that will inject renewable electricity in the European grid supplying 13 of its operating companies.  In Indonesia, the company utilizes sustainable biomass made out of agricultural waste to heat its two breweries.  In Nigeria, HEINEKEN has recently integrated solar panels in its Ibadan brewery, and in Vietnam, the company sources rice husks from local farmers to heat its brewing boilers.

In addition, HEINEKEN is supporting a pilot of 500 low-carbon farming projects in eight countries, as well as shifting to zero-emission breweries in Spain and Austria.  In Mexico, the company is using smart fridges that leverage software to automatically adjust cooling settings to minimize energy use.  HEINEKEN Netherlands is pioneering cleaner inland shipping methods for its beer and cider.  In the UK, HEINEKEN has launched an innovative cardboard multi-pack called Green Grip, reducing carbon and saving 500 tones of plastic every year.  

DuPont Nutrition and Biosciences suggests how making beer differently could help the environment, cut costs and also protect barley resources.  LCAs (low-cost analysis) show the environmental impacts of a product across the entire supply chain.  The analysis looked at the production of two batches of beer in a French brewery.  The first used conventional brewing, with 100% malted barley; the second skipped the malting phase, adding a number of lab-grown enzymes instead. Using these instead of the naturally occurring enzymes that come from malting barley, you no longer need to include barley in your mix – you can use other ingredients, or just less barley.  The study shows that by using the enzymes instead of malting the barley, brewers can:

– Cut energy use by 57%

– Reduce CO2 emissions by 32%

– Use 29% less water

– Use 10% less land

Africa produces around 20 million tons of sorghum a year, about a third of the world’s total.  Encouraging landowners and rural communities to grow more sorghum could be “the cornerstone of food security in Africa,” according to the Department of Food Science at the University of Pretoria, as well as boosting economic development across the continent.

Perrault Farms has changed its approach to pest management. It has leaned more on the presence of beneficial insects, such as stethorus beetles and ladybugs, which kill undesired pests, including mites and aphids.  More than 30% of the hop bines have not been sprayed with miticides, which reduces fuel usage.  The kiln where the hops are dried, is equipped with sensors which detect the weight of the hops, and adjusts the heat applied to the hops, saving propane.

Yakima Chief Hops is integrating a water usage and carbon footprint assessment in its Green Chief certification program.

The Brewers Association In 2015 it began issuing grants to fund sustainability research, most of which have focused on agricultural issues in the areas of barley and hop cultivation. In the past five years, the group has issued more than $2 million in grants to fund more than 90 projects, including 13 that were funded for the 2020 fiscal year.  The Brewers Association also teamed with the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in 2017 on a project to fund develop public sources of hop cultivars that are more resistant to pests and disease.

Beer is heavy.  Transportation by truck to far-away markets carries a formidable environmental cost.  Given that, surprisingly, the largest single impact along the beer supply chain is refrigeration at retail, which weighs in at more than 25% of the total carbon footprint.  Beer is best when stored at cool, consistent temperatures.  Shelf-life stability is an on-going area of concern, especially as beer travels farther away from the brewery.  Brewers have two competing imperatives; the first is the need to maintain quality all the way to the beer drinker, and the other is the increasing imperative to cut back on environmental impacts.  This will challenge brewers in the coming years, especially with the burgeoning demand for distinctive beers from smaller breweries around the world.

Spent grain, the main byproduct (representing about 85%) of the beer-making process.  But “spent” is a misnomer, as the remaining substance is low in sugar and rich in fiber, protein, biotin, folic acid, riboflavin and minerals such as calcium and magnesium.  Spent grains give the bread a very soft crumb and there is a slight chewiness every now and then when you hit a berry.  It does not taste like beer, but you do get some added fiber.  ReGrained, realized that brewers’ spent grain was going to waste, so he rescued and built a brand around it.  The company’s star ingredient, SuperGrain+ flour, is milled from spent grain; it has 26% fewer calories and 55% more dietary fiber than wheat flour.  SuperGrain+ serves as the basis for the ReGrained line of snack bars, but Kurzrock shared ambitions much grander.  The world’s first “regrainery,” that will process tons of brewers’ spent grain daily in Berkeley, California, Kurzrock explained that the new facility will help overcome one of the greatest challenges to this business, “scaling.”  Between the need for equipment, tight logistics and the instability of the raw product, processing challenges abound.  But “our equipment can energy-efficiently stabilize the grain in a modular, scalable way,” he said.  “Soon, we’ll make baking mixes, so people can use our flour at home in pizza doughs, muffins, and more.”

Copenhagen chef Matt Orlando takes the use of brewers spent grain several steps further.  At the new brewery Broaden & Build, flavor takes center stage but creative food waste use permeates every corner.  Spent grain from the brewery is converted into biofuel, which powers the brewery; crisps made from spent grains are served alongside their partner beers at festivals; the trimmings from brownies made from spent beer grains are collected and then brewed back into Brownie Loop stout beer.

Kernza is a potentially revolutionary grain due to it being self-sustaining.  This climate change-fighting wheat can boost soil and water health and keep carbon locked in the ground.  The value to the environment lies deep in the soil.  Under the plowing-intensive agriculture required to grow most major crops like corn or soybeans, carbon in the soil would be released into the atmosphere and become the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.  But perennial grains don’t need plowing, which allows soil to keep trapping carbon in the ground.  Perennials’ large root systems also boost soil and water health by keeping nutrients in the dirt.  Scientists are now working to sequence the genome for Kernza to understand its genetic traits and use that knowledge to grow it more effectively. 

New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, CO released, “Torched Earth Ale,” to help its customer base learn what the beer of the future might represent if global warming continues.  Using smoke-contaminated water, dandelions, and drought-resistant grains like millet and buckwheat. The beer is muddy, starchy, and smokey—even the brand admits it’s awful; but that’s the point.

Jay Avrett has been homebrewing since 2012 and currently lives in Hawkesbury, ON. While he comes from a pre-press printing background, he is currently pursuing a Brewing Science and Operations Certificate from Saint Louis University, St. Louis MO (USA), with plans to work in the brewing industry some day.

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