Hold onto your pints! A recent study reveals that climate change might not only make beer scarcer but also take away its signature bite. Climate change is making Europe hotter and drier, and this is meddling with the quality of hops, a key ingredient in brewing. By 2050, we could see a drop in hop yields by 18% and a whopping 31% reduction in their alpha acid content—the very essence that gives beer its bitterness.
This isn’t the first popular product threatened by climate change. A study in 2019 found that the distribution and cultivation of agave, the main ingredient of tequila, could be disrupted. Chocolate could also become a luxury by 2050 according to a 2016 study, which found it will be very difficult to harvest cocoa due to evapotranspiration. Now, it appears that even beer, a summer staple, isn’t safe.
In their study, Martin Mozny and colleagues gathered data on beer hop yields and alpha content between 1971 and 2018 from 90% of beer hop-growing regions in Germany, Czechia, and Slovenia. Compared to the years before 1994, hops ripening now starts 20 days earlier, with hops production having declined by 0.2 tons per hectare per year.
The researchers then combined past data with climate models and estimated hops yield and alpha fold content will be reduced by 4–18% and 20–31%, respectively, by 2050. The biggest declines are expected to happen in southern hop-growing regions, such as Tettnang in Germany, due to rising temperatures and frequent and severe droughts.
“One of the side motives of this study was to illustrate how climate change might be important for even those who think it doesn’t matter,” Miroslav Trnka, one of the study authors, told CNN. “We are really seeing changes that are affecting things that we value, like the taste of beer. Climate change really can have an effect on it.”
Beer and climate change
Beer is the world’s third most consumed drink after water and tea. Traditional beer brewing in central Europe goes back at least to the Neolithic period (3,500-3,100 BC). As well as water, barley and yeast, hops are needed to give beer its state. The hop aroma comes from its bitter acid content and many other compounds, including essential oils.
Changes in alpha bitter acids affect the quality of hops, and there’s been a recent trend in consumer preference toward beer aromas and flavors that rely on high-quality crops. Amplified by the craft beer boom, this trend contrasts with the previous demand for lower alpha content, meaning beer that’s not as bitter as the ones now mainly demanded.
As the cultivation of high-quality hops is limited to small regions with suitable environmental conditions, there’s a big risk that much of the production will be affected by climate change, the researchers said in their study. However, hop farmers are already responding to this by implementing many changes in their production.
For example, farmers are relocating their hop gardens to higher elevations and valley locations with higher water availability, as well as building irrigation systems and breeding more resistant varieties — in line with similar adaptation measures also extensively used in wine production, another product at risk from a warmer world.
“Since agricultural droughts are projected to increase with high confidence in southern Europe and medium confidence in central Europe, it will be necessary to expand the area of aroma hops by 20% compared to the current production area to compensate for a future decline in alpha content (and/or hop production),” the researchers wrote.
The study was published in the journal Nature.