Anything but my beer
If climate change hasn’t moved you yet, just wait until it steals your beer.
If I told you that the changes to our climate are leading to stronger hurricanes and more-severe heat waves, you’d probably care, but you wouldn’t really change your behavior, would you? What if I added that polar bears are losing their habitat due to the melting of glaciers, would you be willing to sell your car? However, if you learned that climate change is affecting the quality and price of your beer, how likely would you be to do your part?
How does it affect beer?
Beer is one of the most-popular beverages in the world and is made through the fermentation of grains during a brewing process that adds water, yeast, and hops to taste. While your gut may have told you that adjusting the water content is the best way to limit the effects of climate change, those effects are being felt more on the farms. Whether it’s the quality of the grains being produced, the taste of the malt, or the price of the hops, the entire process is being changed by the climate.
Barley is the most-popular grain used in brewing and it continues to be pushed to the limit. Historically, the majority of barley produced in the United States has come from the Midwest, but, due to both climate and profitability, production is being squeezed north. As temperatures rise, northern farmers are forced to between barley (yield of $170-$227 per acre) and corn/soybeans (yield $291-$331 per acre) as their land can now can sustain both (1). As proof, corn production is up more than 8x relative to 20 years ago in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and scientists are expecting this trend to continue as the average annual temperature increases the estimated 5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 (2).
As if barley wasn’t tough enough, hops—which many consider to be the star of the show—are also being affected. Already a bit of a primadonna, hops are getting even more expensive to produce and are being forced even farther north. The optimal growing conditions for hops include 15 hours of sunlight, a hard winter freeze, a hot summer (with temperatures between 40 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit), and about three gallons of water per day—but not enough water to cause mildew (3)—and these conditions are becoming harder and harder to find in the United States. Whether it is due to the droughts in the Pacific Northwest or the fact that climate zones are moving north by an estimated 3.8 feet each day (4), Canada is looking more and more attractive to beer makers.
Raw materials used in beer production (image from German Food Guide)
What is MillerCoors doing about climate change?
MillerCoors is the second-largest producer of beer in the United States and is doing its part to help shape the industry’s conservation efforts. We’ve discussed how climate change is affecting the inputs to their products, but water often plays the largest role in the conservation efforts we have seen. MillerCoors understands its responsibility to protect natural resources and focuses on an environmental stewardship strategy that strives to reduce water use in their breweries and agricultural supply chain and restore water in stressed watersheds, to reduce their carbon footprint across the value chain, and to eliminate waste at all major manufacturing facilities (5).
To that focus, MillerCoors has iterated on many efficiency improvements in their breweries in addition to kicking off new projects that are reducing the amount of water required to brew a beer. Their goal is to reduce the average water-to-beer ratio to 3:1 by 2020 (a 25% reduction from the prior decade) and they are well on their way (6).
MillerCoors water-to-beer ratio (graph from MillerCoors)
Lastly, in an effort to return water to natural sources in water-stressed areas, MillerCoors is working towards returning a volume of water equal to their production volume into water-stressed watersheds (7).
Will it always taste the same?
The short answer is yes. However, it may get a little more expensive and your favorite American beers may become a little less American in the years to come. As we continue to learn more about the effects of climate change, I think it’s important to acknowledge that it is a huge issue that affects the entire value chain and that no one company can solve it. While I would love to see MillerCoors use their influence to share more on the topic, at the end of the day, they can reduce their water-to-beer ratio near 1:1 but they will still struggle to find an affordable source of barley and hops in the United States.
- The Growler Magazine, “Climate change’s impact on beer: What you need to know,” http://growlermag.com/climate-changes-impact-on-beer-what-you-need-to-know/, accessed November 2016.
- Nature, Vol. 462, No. 7276, pp.1052-1059
- MillerCoors, “Environmental Stewardship,” http://www.millercoors.com/sustainability/environmental-stewardship, accessed November 2016.
Student comments on Anything but my beer
Really interesting post that gets to the sad truth behind climate change: many people simply don’t care unless they can see how climate change is affecting them today. The problems facing the beer industry are difficult ones–and are likely to start being reflected in the price of beer–something consumers will certainly (as you point out) take note of. You note several good initiatives to improve sustainability but I’m curious to hear how MillerCoors and its competitors are looking towards the future. Becoming more sustainable and managing water and waste will help mitigate some of the effects of climate change but they won’t stop the effect of warmer temperatures on the wheat, barley and hops crops. Should MillerCoors be looking at bigger, perhaps more impactful changes? Reformulating beer to use less of water-intensive crops by switching hops for say sorghum may raise protests from beer drinkers now but might be necessary to continue producing beer in the future. Perhaps MillerCoors should also look at genetically modified crops that have been designed to use less water and adapt to warmer temperatures.
I’d be curious what the cost implications are to Coors for reducing their water to beer ratio. The beer industry is still a competitive industry, and arguably becoming more so with so many new craft breweries. If is costs more money to undertake these sustainable initiatives, there is dis-incentive to be the first mover here. For example, if Coors must increase prices by undertaking sustainable initiatives, it makes competitors products more appealing. I’d be curious to see what incentives there are for Coors to make this change, and what cost implications it has.
Interesting article – I wonder if MillerCoors will one day have to start raising prices because of this, and if so what effect that will have on the demand for beer? My question though is if northern farmers are increasingly feeling crunched to pick between corn and barley on their shrinking plots of land, why doesn’t MillerCoors just contract with more farmers farther north? In other words, what incentive do they have to begin trying to minimize their water utilization if they are not indebted to any one, particular area? On the other end of things, I wonder if there is any research being done into barley seeds that can grow at warmer temperatures?
This was a great read and it was interesting to learn about the differences in profit per acre for barley and corn/soybeans – it really puts farmers in a tough position of choosing which to produce. At the end of the day though, it sounds like there will be a shortage and while MillerCoors may be able to temporarily shoulder the price increase and the in the long-term pass the cost on to consumers, smaller breweries which are on the rise will be the most impacted. In this regard, I’d like to see MillerCoors support smaller brewers like Sam Adams through a hop sharing program . I think doing so sends a two-fold message: 1) the industry as a whole is feeling an impact by climate change and 2) we have the resources to not only help combat climate change, but we’ll help those most impacted by it out.
Water (and the unique mineral makeup of it based on location) plays an important role in the taste of beer. It’s good to hear that MillerCoors is making a huge effort to reduce its water usage ratio, but it’d be also interesting to learn what they and others in the industry are going to do to combat lower groundwater levels and changing water sources. The recent drought had small California breweries about the taste change with a water source change  and for a large company like MillerCoors, it’d be interesting to see how they plan on keeping taste consistent across the country with this rising issue.
 – http://blog.samueladams.com/hop-sharing-program/
 – http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/02/19/279627234/california-brewers-fear-drought-could-leave-bad-taste-in-your-beer
This was terrific. It shows how a single product given a set of variables, can come under threat from every angle. I had no idea about the level of inputs that went into making that much beer. It seems like managing this project would be one that loyal drinkers would rally behind because of their connection that happinesss produced by good beer. Good beer with a purpose sounds like icing on the cake.