Climate change could impact barley, making your beer more expensive

You might have to pay more for a pint of beer because of climate change. Scientists say warming temperatures will take a toll on global barley supplies.

That would hike up beer prices and drop how much people drink.

Aside from water, barley is the main ingredient in beer.

“Beautiful stuff,” said Matt Lincecum, co-owner of Fremont Brewing Company. “The magic happens at several stations."

He said about 3,000 pounds of barley goes into a big tank with water.

“We’ll take the liquid, boil it, add some hops, add some yeast and get on with making more beer every day,” Lincecum said.

Then over months, or sometimes years with barrel aging, when the beer is ready, 
it gets packaged right on site –: about 5,000 cases of beer every day.

Now, a study says climate change will decrease global production of barley – dropping global yields by an average of 17 percent during extreme years of drought and heat.

“The potential impact is enormous,” Lincecum said.

Because beer is considered a "luxury good," the study said the average global beer price will double and consumption will drop over the next 80 years.

“What we are sure about is that this effect won’t stop with the consumer. Beer is a luxury good, to some people. To some, it's a necessity. But to us, it's the only thing we do. So it's not a luxury good, it's our livelihood,” Lincecum said.

Washington State climatologist Nick Bond wasn't part of the study, but he's helping us understand the local impact of the barley forecast.
"We shouldn't panic," Bond said. "In some place of the globe, changes could really impact crop yields, (but) here in the U.S. -, not so much," he said.

Bond said the bigger local impact of climate change is likely to hops.

“The real craft beers a lot of us like, they rely on some of those special varieties of hops. Turns out they're kind of fussy in their requirements. They need a lot of water but cool nights,” Bond said.

“What we've been seeing in the summertime is more or less of a systematic rise in nighttime temps. I would say that's concerning,” he said.

Eastern Washington is truly the land of hops.

Seventy-five percent of the U.S. production of hops comes right from the Yakima Valley.

“That’s actually 1/3 of the global supply,” said Jaki Brophy, who is with the Hop Growers of Washington and the Washington Hops Commission.

“As the climate changes, everyone is going to be impacted, and there's always going to be changes,” Brophy said.

She said the hop industry isn't taking climate change sitting down.

"We've had major upgrades to our growing practices for a number of years now," Brody said. "We're always looking at hops that are more drought-resistant, disease-resistant."
Brody said because growers in eastern Washington get water primarily from snowmelt instead of rain, and because they've worked for years to maximize efficiency, Washington growers aren't worried.

“We really just focus on what we can do to best improve our performance and stay as ahead of the game as we can,” Brody said.

Fremont Brewing also wants people to keep in mind that any impact on beer is a 
drop in the bucket - or tank, if you will - compared to the other effects of global warming.

“We’re not sounding the bell that this is the biggest effect people should be worried about. We're worried about it, obviously, 'cause it's all we do, but I think the larger effects of climate change are obviously vastly more devastating,” Lincecum said.

“I’m a hopeful person. I really do hope the potential impact on the price of beer can focus us on the real seriousness of the impacts of climate change. And I'll certainly drink a beer to that,” Lincecum said.

Climate scientists say the big thing to minimize impacts of climate change is to reduce carbon emissions.

Fremont Brewing said it's doing everything it can to play its part.

Lincecum said it's the only wind-powered brewery in Washington (it buys offset credits), and it works to make sure the barley it uses spends as little time on the road as possible.


When it comes to specialty beers, you’re always paying a little extra for premium. But prices could go way up if one main ingredient gets hit hard by climate change.

Craft beer culture is deeply embedded in our state – almost as much as coffee. Most every grocery store boasts an impressive lineup of local craft brews, from porters to pilsners to the beloved northwest IPAs.

And Seattle is a town that takes its beer seriously. It’s an obsession that stretches across the state. If you find yourself in the Yakima Valley, you’re in the center of the bitter beer universe:  The Yakima Valley is home to one of the best hop-growing regions in the world. The desert climate combined with Yakima River irrigation is ideal for healthy and abundant hop farming.

But some craft beer connoisseurs are worried that climate change may create a negative impact on not just their beer, but their bottom line. The ingredient they’re worried about is barley.

A study published in the journal Nature Plants found that the yield of barley could dip sharply in a period of extreme drought or heat. Less supply and growing demand could mean beer consumers start paying a lot more for a pint.

A researcher on that study wrote on Twitter: "Under higher-warming climate scenarios, we find 100-year drought and heat events occur every 3 years, decreasing barley yields by an average 17% in those years, and increasing the price of a 6-pack in the U.S. by $1-8. Another way climate change will suck."

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