As I sit here in my office, Budweiser-supplied barley seeds are being flown to the international space station. Ostensibly to observe any mutations or changes after a month in micro-gravity. Why? Because of marketing of course. Robert Marquez, of Budweiser said this, "We're looking to simply learn more, explore our agenda. It's great that we can connect with the passion of our drinker," before adding, "And we've been watching Star Trek for years."
Space beer doesn’t seem to be a bad line of thinking these days, given the fact we’re not doing a great job of tending to our current beer-making planet. These words are also being written in the shadow of the Thomas Fire. Currently, it’s the third largest blaze in California’s history, and 70% uncontained. It’s chewing through California’s agricultural heartland. In fire speak, it’s mostly raging out of control. A few months ago, the Santa Rosa fire destroyed dozens of wineries.
The air here in Southern California is hot, dry and, in some areas, virtually unbreathable. Humidity is below 20%. It’s an anxiety-producing climate and not a bad time to drink a beer. Which, of course, leads to the rather macabre question: Is there a good beer to accompany climate-driven disasters? Of course, the short answer is, “no.” It’s glib to suggest otherwise.
However, the proximity of these fires to my home means I’m on edge. With that generalized nervousness comes a desire to try and relax. I’m prepared as I can be, but acutely aware that thirty miles away fellow Californians are fleeing their homes with birth certificates in hand while thousands of firefighters battle the blazes night and day. Talk about men and women who deserve a beer.
It’s all quite dramatic in real time.
And while beer is the last thing on most of our minds, it’s worth pulling back and asking what this all means in the larger context of beer production, because these fires are increasingly common. In fact per the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, California has experienced a fire of over 100,000 acres once per year on average over the last couple of years. In previous decades, this was considered a rare event. Most scientists agree that global warming is the culprit and, as a result of global warming, those of us that drink beer should be thinking about how beer is made.
A recent survey conducted by the USDA says that 73% of our hops are grown in just three states. Washington, Oregon and Idaho. On top of that, those three states have had some of their warmest years on record. How warm? All three recorded their highest average temperatures in 121 years of record keeping over the last three years.
But what does that have to do with hops? Well, it’s all about yield. Before we go too deep into the details of commercial agriculture let’s keep it simple. Yield is the amount of hops produced in any given year on the farms. It doesn’t matter to you on a daily basis because yields have been good but yield, like any commodity is tied directly to supply and demand. Lower yields mean lower supply and, if demand for beer remains high, which I expect it will, only one thing can happen: Cost goes up. If the cost goes up, then it will reach a point where brewers pass it on to you, meaning higher beer costs.
Now, we won’t notice this at first, but it will be the first sign. And so we’re clear, farmers are already feeling it. In fact they created a declaration in 2015 in which this phrase stood out: “Rising demand and lower yields have driven the price of hops up by more than 250% over the past decade. Clean water resources, another key ingredient, are also becoming scarcer in the West as a result of climate-related droughts and reduced snow pack.”
What does this all mean to you, dear beer drinker? Is Canada the future of hops production? Alaska? Mars?”
But that’s not all, folks. There’s also the water issue. You might think, “Water? But the Northwest is full of water, it rains like every other day in Seattle.” And you wouldn’t be wrong. However, hops and barley aren’t grown in the coast climate of the Northwest. They are produced in the relatively drier ‘Eastern’ portion of the states. These vast acreages use river and aquifer water to grow crops and, in the cases of breweries, brew beer.
But as the old hippie bard once said, “The times, they are a changin’.” The EPA is looking into modeling water impacts well into the future and by the time we hit 2040, our beloved Northwest hops growing region could see a reduction in snowmelt up to 50%. That’s huge and when that snow melt drops a number of terrible things happen: Streams dry up, aquifers drop and the quality of the water in them also lowers. In short order, you don’t have enough water to grow the crops you need or make the beer you want.
Yeah, it sucks.
What does this all mean to you, dear beer drinker? Is Canada the future of hops production? Alaska? Mars? The answer is perhaps. Climate change, while assured, is also fiendishly complicated. Computer modeling is, at best, a guestimate and some areas that are currently dry may end up with more water due to shifts in the jet stream. The shorter answer is, keep enjoying your well-made, easily produced and lost-cost beers.
This apocalypse is slow moving. But like the frog in the pot of cold water, be aware that it’s warming. Awareness and acknowledgement are the first order of business. For my part, I’m going to have a beer, check the fire maps and price out some solar panels.
Four Beers of the the Apocalypse
Smog City Brewing Company’s This Sour Future ABV
With a name like this how could we not include this limited edition micro brew. With only 2000 bottles produced you might find it very hard to procure, but at the end of the world limited editions will mean so much less. Smog City describes the beer as: balance in a bottle. ‘Bright acidity is held in check by a solid malt backbone, while the subtle wine character is complimented by rich oak tannin.’ Sounds like you can almost taste the burning smoke.
Santa Barbara Brewing Company’s Santa Barbara Blonde
The largest of the recent fire started outside Santa Barbara and took nearly three weeks to put out. It gobbled up small businesses and mansions...as it burned all the way to the beach. However, all of Santa Barbara’s breweries were spared. Started in 1995, Santa Barbara Brewery is the old dog with the best game in town and their Blonde is a true pilsner, which should help cool that smoke produced sore throat.
Dragon's Gate Brewery’s the Blood of the Dragon
With Oregon producing much of the US’s hops...and home to some devastating wildfires, it feels important to include an Eastern Oregon brewery named after something appropriately apocalyptic - which is why Dragon’s Gate makes the grade. They describe their own ‘Blood of the Dragon’ as a saison with: blood orange, bitter orange, and sweet orange peel along with a mix of spices to enhance the Le’ Petit Dragon.
Kenai River Brewing’s Single Hop IPA Series
If we look deep into the future, Alaska may someday provide the temperate climate required for great beer grains. Traditionally hop bines don’t flower in Alaska, but that’s been changing and on the forefront of Alaska grown hops is the Kenai River Brewing company who have successfully pioneered by Homer AK resident, Lasse Holmes. Holmes and some friends successfully made a commercial brew from local hops in 2015 and while you have to travel a fair ways to try it, beer grown from Alaskan hops can be found! We don’t know what the future holds, but trade may end up being limited, so testing out single hop beers make sense.
Graphic by: Remo Remoquillo