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Climate change news is pretty much always a bummer. But at least you can always take a break from it all by enjoying a cold beer, right?
Not quite. According to a study that came out last month in Nature Communications, the effects of climate change are coming for beer. Scientists found that the amount of European hops crops, which give beer its unique bitter taste, is dropping. Hops come from the flower of the hop plant, usually added to the brewing process along with water, yeast and malt. But this study found that in some key regions, there was almost a 20% drop in hops crop output from 1995 to 2018. This change is being blamed on hotter, longer and drier summers. Some hops and barley growers in North America say they’ve also been seeing their crops impacted by heat, drought and more unpredictable growing seasons.
“With climate change affecting a vast number of agricultural crops, I’m not surprised,” says Douglass Miller, a senior lecturer in food and beverage management at Cornell University (who was not involved in the study). “Hops are also finicky plants, and there might be some crop failures,” Miller said, which could lead brewers to work with different flavor profiles from other types of hops.
Not all is lost, though. The beer industry is already trying to adapt. “Hop farmers have changed the locations of hop fields in response to changes in temperature and precipitation and that is likely to continue,” says Mark Sorrells, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Integrative Plant Science. Some farmers have also begun planting other types of barley, like winter barley, in the offseason to get better annual yields.
At the same time, researchers are experimenting with different kinds of hops that can deal with summer heat, warmer winters, changing pests and diseases, less water and less snowfall. Still, climate change always seems to be one step ahead.
“It will be increasingly difficult for us as plant breeders to provide new varieties of barley and new varieties of hops that can meet, just, all of the terrors of the climate change process,” says Patrick Hayes, a professor at Oregon State University. “And I say terrors because … it’s that volatility, which is so, so frightening.”