Wed. Nov 30th, 2022
Barley grain used in the production of beer at the Asahi Kanagawa Brewery in Japan.
enlarge / Barley grain used in the production of beer at the Asahi Kanagawa Brewery in Japan.

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg/Getty Images

There’s nothing like getting your feet up after a long, hot summer’s day and enjoying a refreshing cold brew if you’re a beer lover. But a warming climate could lead to global barley shortages, resulting in beer shortages. That’s the conclusion of a new study just published in Nature Plants.

Beer brewers account for about 17 percent of global barley consumption, although this varies from region to region, with the vast majority of crops harvested as livestock feed. If barley becomes too scarce, more will be funneled to livestock, as beer is technically a luxury commodity. The shortage of barley will lead to sharp price increases and associated declines in global consumption. While the most affluent beer aficionados can still enjoy a pint or two, “future climate and pricing conditions could make beer out of reach for hundreds of millions of people around the world,” said study co-author Steven Davis of the University of California, irvine.

Davis is a beer enthusiast and homebrewer himself, who regularly travels to China for research collaborations. On one such trip a few years ago, he spoke to a scientist from the Chinese Agricultural Academy of Sciences, who was studying the global beer supply. (China is currently the largest consumer of beer and would thus be hit hard by a severe barley shortage.) They decided to collaborate on a study of the impact of climate change on beer, in collaboration with other researchers in the United Kingdom and Mexico.

Crazy about mash

Brewers start the process by exposing grain to moisture so that it germinates, converting the starch into sugars. When the sugar content is just right, they roast the grains, resulting in a malt to kick-start the fermentation into beer. In principle, any grain can be malted: wheat, rye, maize and rice. But for beer, barley is the undisputed king because it germinates quickly and has a rich flavor when roasted. While brewers occasionally experiment with adding rice or wheat to their brews, “that’s usually frowned upon as filler,” Davis says. “The purists want you to use barley.” Even wheat beers are still mostly barley.

Barley farmers in Montana are already feeling the impact of a warmer climate, though they’re more likely to talk publicly about “irregular weather” or “dryer, hotter summers” in that Republican stronghold than about politically charged “climate change.” They struggle to grow barley crops in more common conditions of severe drought and extreme heat. Hot, dry weather affects grain quality, increasing the likelihood that the barley will be sold as feed, at a third of the asking price of barley sold for beer. And climate scientists predict things will only get worse for the region, with temperatures across the state set to rise 4° to 5° Fahrenheit by 2055.

No Barley, No Beer: A brewer pulls malted barley from the mash kettle at Wynwood Brewing Company in Miami, Florida.
enlarge / No Barley, No Beer: A brewer pulls malted barley from the mash kettle at Wynwood Brewing Company in Miami, Florida.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Barley is a fairly temperate crop and is mainly grown in cooler regions such as the northern Great Plains, north-central Europe, Australia and the Asian steppe. So it’s likely that barley farmers can adapt to gradual changes in climate — at least that’s the “somewhat heroic assumption” Davis et al. made in their study. Farmers could selectively breed or genetically modify their crops to develop more drought-resistant barley, for example. They could also change their farming practices to increase yields in warmer conditions.

So the researchers focused on the most extreme years for their study, with shifts so large that it’s unlikely farmers would be able to adapt quickly enough. According to Davis, under the most favorable scenario they’ve modeled, where the world avoids two degrees of warming (an increasingly unlikely scenario), about ten percent of those years will be extreme by the end of the 21st century. In the worst case, that is about every two years. Extreme heat and drought would “virtually become the norm,” he says.

till the end

The researchers took those extreme climate events and modeled their impact on barley yields in 23 regions of the world. They then studied the effect of the resulting barley shortages on the supply and price of beer in each region, under different scenarios. They concluded that the largest barley-growing regions would experience a 3 to 17 percent drop in crop yields, depending on the severity of conditions. Beer prices would double on average and consumption would fall by 4 to 16 percent in the best and worst scenarios, respectively.

Of course there will be regional differences. Price swings are linked to consumers’ ability and willingness to pay more for beer, or drink less of it, reducing consumption, according to Davis. For example, beer is already expensive in Australia and Japan, so beer drinkers there would be less affected by the sticker shock than other regions, such as Belgium, Germany or the Czech Republic. In Ireland, Davis estimates that people could pay an extra $20 per six-pack.

“Not having a cool pint at the end of an increasingly hot day only makes the injury worse.”

It’s hard to say whether barley shortages will affect craft brewers or large commercial brewers like Coors more, Davis said. You could argue that craft beer aficionados are already wealthy enough to afford more expensive beers, and so may be more willing to pay even higher prices during a shortage. Coors’ customers may be less willing. On the other hand, Coors has the market dominance to be able to get good barley even in scarce years, with enough profit margins to bridge the lean times.

A beer shortage may not seem like the most pressing life-or-death impact of global climate change, given rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes and worsening wildfires making headlines lately. But most people rarely dwell on all the little ways a warmer climate will affect their daily lives.

“In a wealthy country like the United States, people might not be too concerned if their bread goes 10 to 25 cents more expensive,” Davis says. “It may be that luxury goods are actually more visible, in terms of the impact of climate change on affluent consumers. There is certainly a cross-cultural appeal to beer and not having a cool pint at the end of an increasingly common warm day makes the injury only worse.”

DOI: Nature Plants2018. 10.1038/s41477-018-0263-1 (About DOIs).

By akfire1

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