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The ‘frightening’ way climate change will affect beer

Hop growing regions are having to find new strategies to sustain what they produce for breweries due to climate change.

A recent report via Sentinel, outlined how human-caused climate damage was impacting water access and weather patterns in the Willamette Valley.

Gayle Goschie, a fourth generation hop farmer based about an hour outside Portland, Oregon, warned that climate change “was not coming any longer, it was here”.

The Sentinel highlighted how climate change is anticipated to further the challenges that farmers and brewers are already seeing in two key beer crops: hops and barley. It outlined how some hops and barley growers across the US admit that they have already seen crops impacted by extreme heat, drought and unpredictable growing seasons. In a study from the Czech Academy of Sciences, researchers recently warned that, unless swift adaptations are developed, European hops will be increasingly difficult to grow due to climate change affecting yields and alpha acid content.

Added to this, researchers are now working with growers to help counter the effects of more volatile weather with a range of improved hop varieties that can potentially withstand drought, while others are now growing winter barley to keep up with demand.

Mirek Trnka, a professor at the Global Change Research Institute pointed out how researchers have known for a while that beer production will be affected by climate change and recently authored a new study in Nature Communications that illustrated the effect of climate change on hops. The study projected that yields in Europe will decrease between four to 18% by 2050. But, looking at his first study on hops 15 years ago, he reasserted that this had issued a similar warning to his latest paper.

Trnka said: “If we don’t act, we’re just going to also lose things that we consider not to be, for example, sensitive or related to climate change. Like beer.”

Trnka explained how climate change moves faster than many people we might realise – but stated that it is still too slowly for many to notice. He assured that, the fact that researchers have started picking up on this means that there’s still a chance for farming to be adapted but he still has concerns. After all, anticipated hop declines in Europe will have a knock on effect for all global beer producers, big and small.

Shaun Townsend, an associate professor and senior researcher at Oregon State University, revealed that researchers are working on varieties of hops that can better withstand summer heat, warmer winters, as well as diseases and reduced irrigation. Townsend revealed he is currently working on a project that subjects hops to drought stress to eventually create more drought-tolerant varieties and admitted: “It’s no easy task, one that can take a decade, and one that also has to take into account brewers’ main considerations, taste and yield. But the possibility of running out of water is a reality that’s on people’s radars.”

Kevin Smith, professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota, said that while spring barley is the dominant type for the US, winter barley – which is planted in the autumn and kept on fields during the coldest months of the year – may be less risky. Additionally, there is the notion that winter barley may also be desirable for smaller breweries that have started emphasising local ingredients and who want something grown close by. Plus, the as the Sentinel highlighted, from a farming perspective, winter barley can be grown as a cover crop to help farmers prevent erosion, improve soil health and keep carbon stored in the ground by planting it during the off-season when fields are normally bare.

Unfortunately, the consensus on the promise of winter barley is yet to be agreed as the best way forwards.

Patrick Hayes, a professor at Oregon State University, said in reference to winter barley replacing spring barley: “It can’t be done” and yet has made it his life’s mission to work on improving winter barley to overcome this statement, but the outlook is bleak.

Hates warned: “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. And I say terrors because … it’s that volatility, which is so, so frightening.”

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