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The Cost Of Your Favorite Beer Could Double Due To Climate Change, Study Suggests

Randol White / Capital Public Radio

Randol White / Capital Public Radio

Brewer Chris Miller has a problem with a key ingredient in a European-inspired beer he makes at Berryessa Brewing Co. in Northern California: When using malted barley from a German distributor, the beer is cloudy. He says the brew should be clear.

After researching the malt, Miller discovered the growers had a “funky” growing year. “And it all traces back to climate change,” Miller said.

The Winters-based brewmaster’s problem is exemplified by a new UC Irvine study, which says more frequent droughts and heat waves will decrease the amount of global barley production.

Study co-author Steve Davis says this could mean a shortage of beer — and increased prices — over this century.

“When there's a big crop failure of barley, we see price shocks [that] in some cases could increase the price of a six-pack by $8 or $9,” he said of the study’s most extreme predictions.

The study, published in the journal Nature Plants, says the worst case scenario could result in some countries consuming less beer due to decreased barely supply.

“It may seem trivial to talk about beer in the climate context when there are other threats that are much more existential,” Davis said. “But in an affluent country like the U.S., it actually may hit closer to home for an average consumer, that their beer could double in price in a given year.”

This is a big deal for a state where most of the barley is imported. UC Davis brewing guru Charlie Bamforth says barley’s availability in California is slim because most malt houses — that’s where barley is sprouted and dried — left California as farmers began growing more lucrative crops in-state.

“I know plenty of brewers would prefer to use locally sourced malt, but in California at this point in time it is just not economical,” Bamforth said. “It’s cheaper to ship it large distances despite the environmental aspect.”

The Brewers Association, which represents national craft breweries, noted that the study “is largely an academic exercise and not one that brewers or beer lovers should lose any sleep over.”

The U.S. trade association also said that the geography of barley-crop production has historically shifted over time. Crop efficiency is growing, it also said, and the beer industry is already preparing for climate change.

Konrad Mathesius is a farm advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension in Yolo County. He says if climate climate change prevents barley from being grown in wet climates California farmers could once again give it a try.

"It's never really fetched a great price, and that's why all of a sudden climate change is threatening it, but if it's grown on irrigated land as part of a rotation then, yeah, it's a strong contender,” Mathesius said.

Mathesius is working on a project to see how barley grows under different conditions in California. The barley is being malted in Oregon and he says Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. will brew it.

“They’re all going to be blonde ales,” Mathesius said, adding that he, brewers and the public will evaluate the beers.

That’s what Chris Miller is doing in Winters. And he found that weather issues caused the barley malt he works with to contain more proteins, which increased the turbidity or cloudiness. Miller says he also got substandard hops from overseas, which can alter the flavor profile of beer.

“It opens our eyes,” he said. “We just have to make adjustments and kind of roll with the punches. I’ve already been seeing not-so-great crops from overseas.”

At the same, UC Davis’ Bamforth pointed out consumers are embracing hazy beer — a trend that could accommodate flaws in the beer-making process.  

“There’s this crazy tendency these days that people want cloudy beers, so somebody might argue ‘What does it matter?’” Bamforth said about how climate change impacts barley. “I don’t think that’s a sensible argument.”

Either way more California made beer could be on tap despite climate change.

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