Climate Matters•March 16, 2022
March Warming & Beer’s Climate Risk
95% of 246 weather stations across the U.S. saw increasing trends in March average temperatures from 1970 to 2021.
Widespread warming is not only an indicator of climate change. It’s also affecting the unofficial drink of St. Patrick’s Day: beer.
We breakdown the links between climate change and beer’s key ingredients, as well as climate solutions brewing in the industry.
Beer and Climate Change
We’re looking forward to St. Patrick’s Day, while also looking back—at March temperature trends since 1970.
95% of 246 weather stations across the U.S. saw March average temperatures increase from 1970 to 2021—consistent with nationwide spring warming trends.
Across all stations, March temperatures increased by 2.4 °F on average since 1970. March warming over this period was highest in Nevada and Arizona cities: Las Vegas (7.1 °F), Tucson (6.3 °F), Reno (6.2 °F), and Phoenix (6.0 °F).
Widespread warming is not only an indicator of climate change; it’s also affecting the unofficial drink of St. Patrick’s Day: beer.
Climate change and beer. Beer is the country’s most popular alcoholic beverage. Americans consume more than 6 billion gallons of beer annually—about 80% of which is also produced here in the U.S. Steady domestic supplies of beer’s main ingredients (clean water, barley, and hops) are needed to meet this demand. But each of these ingredients faces different risks from climate change.
There’s no beer without water. It makes up 90%-95% of every pint, can, and keg. While brewing requires five to six times more water than what ends up in each glass, beer’s total water footprint extends beyond the brewery and into the fields where barley and hops are grown.
Accounting for barley cultivation alone, the average water footprint of a pint of beer is about 44 gallons of water. And although beer is less water-intensive than other popular beverages like coffee or milk, the beer industry could still face steep competition for limited water resources in times of water scarcity or in drought-prone regions like the West.
Climate change is contributing to nationwide changes in the quality and quantity of freshwater. Reduced snowpack and groundwater depletion further limit water supplies available for irrigation and brewing.
Barley is behind beer’s color, flavor, froth, and fermentation. Barley is the most common grain used for beer production, and the source of sugars that are fermented into alcohol. But barley is also highly sensitive to extreme heat and drought, putting it at risk in a warming climate.
According to a 2018 study, the increasing occurrence of drought and heat extremes with additional warming could reduce barley yields, resulting in price hikes for beer in many countries. In Ireland, whose patron saint is celebrated every March 17, beer prices could double by 2100 with unchecked climate change.
In the U.S., 80% of the 2 million acres of barley harvested last year were in just three states: Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota. But models suggest that the Northern Great Plains will experience far more heat extremes by 2050. And just last year, drought may have contributed to a 31% drop in U.S. barley production compared to 2020.
Hops: flavorful but fickle. Hops give different brews their distinct flavor, bitterness, and aroma.
Hops are highly localized. 73% of the hops grown in the U.S. in 2021 came from Washington State, primarily in the Yakima Valley. The rest was grown in Oregon and Idaho. Irrigation in these three states depends on snowpack, which has been declining throughout the West.
The record Northwest heatwave in 2021 was a test of hops’ resilience as a heat-sensitive and highly localized crop. Despite the extreme summer conditions, hops production in 2021 was 11% higher than in 2020. But it’s not all about quantity. Quality is also critical for imparting flavors, and growers reported heat-stunted and smoky-smelling hops during the summer’s extreme heat and fire season.
Serving Up Solutions. Beer’s core ingredients all face climate risk. But brewers are working to adapt the industry—which contributes an estimated $330 billion to the national economy and supports 2 million jobs in brewing, distribution, retail, agriculture, and manufacturing, according to the Beer Institute.
The world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, is working with The Nature Conservancy to improve stewardship of freshwater resources that are not only important for beer, but also critical for communities and ecosystems. Others are aiming for carbon-neutral production by 2030.
Many small craft brewers are also leading initiatives, whether that’s establishing best practices for water management, analyzing and reducing their carbon footprint, or raising awareness with brews that simulate how beer could taste in a hotter future.
POTENTIAL LOCAL STORY ANGLES
How is climate change affecting farmers near you?
The USDA has detailed statistics and maps on where barley and hops are being grown—and directories for farmers by zip code. To see how climate change is affecting agriculture in your area, check out regional breakdowns from the National Climate Assessment.
How do breweries in your state contribute to the economy?
Lookup 2020 craft beer sales and production statistics for the nation and for all 50 states. Learn about the nationwide economic impact of craft breweries and the beer industry as a whole.
What climate solutions are brewers pursuing?
Breweries around the country are working on sustainable solutions—from cutting energy use in buildings to capturing CO2 from the fermentation process itself. On the science front, researchers are working on heat-tolerant barley and disease-resistant hops.
The SciLine service, 500 Women Scientists or the press offices of local universities may be able to connect you with local scientists who have expertise on climate change. The American Association of State Climatologists is a professional scientific organization composed of all state climatologists.
Technical Brewing Projects Director at the Brewers Association
Related expertise: agricultural inputs to beer, beer quality, brewery sustainability
Trey Malone, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics
Michigan State University
Related expertise: Food and agricultural policy, behavioral economics
St. Patrick’s Day temperature extremes and March temperature trends are calculated using data from the Applied Climate Information System. Extremes are given for each station’s entire period of record, while trends begin in 1970 for consistency between stations. Displayed trend lines are based on a mathematical linear regression.