Reality check: Is climate change coming for your beer?

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A Belgian brewery that relies on very specific temperatures to get their beer just right is watching the production window get smaller and smaller thanks to climate change.

Cantillon Brewery partnered with environment researchers to do a study, the results of which were shared on the Brussels Beer City blog this month. Cantillon produces lambic beer, relying on cool winter nights to inoculate their brew and warm — not hot — summer days to age it in wooden barrels.

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What they found is the number of days when the temperature is just right has been on the decline for decades, dropping from 165 days in the early 1900s to 140 now. They expect the number of viable days to drop further, reaching 90 by 2100.

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As the window narrows, their options to keep producing regularly will be to pack up for somewhere colder or start using modern technology to make their beer. Doing the latter, the brewery’s owner Jean Van Roy told Brussels Beer City, isn’t an option he wants to consider.

Given how unique the Cantillon brewing process is, most people don’t need to worry that your favourite Canadian brew is at risk. Still, some brewers are already grappling with the impact and future impacts of climate change.

“Where climate change is going to affect our industry is in crop yields for barley and wheat,” said Roger Mittag, founder of Thirst for Knowledge and one of Canada’s leading beer experts.

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The crops are tricky, he noted, because they need plenty of dryness but then some moisture as well. Extreme weather, be it excessive heat or excessive rain, isn’t good.

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“If we get too much heat in many cases then it changes the characteristics of that particular barley crop,” Mittag said, “and that may affect what brewers end up getting out of it.”

Given Canada is one of the top global producers of malt and barley, there could be some national impact, he said. If it’s too hot and there’s less yield, the available starches could decline which could mean more crop is needed to produce the same amount of alcohol.

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“There are probably some ramifications down the road,” Mittag said.

One of the co-owners of Muddy York Brewing in Toronto said while there hasn’t been much of an impact to date, they have seen an increase in hop and grain prices in the few years since they opened. Partly that’s inflation, he said via email, “but also lower yields due to seasonal differences.”

There are brewers grappling already with climate change’s impact on beer’s main ingredient: water. Some operate using well water, explained Lucy Saunders, a fermentation-focused chef based in Wisconsin, which gets trickier when extreme weather results in major flooding.

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To avoid the pollutants that usually wind up in well water after a flood, brewers are forced to buy expensive filtration systems to keep brewing, she said.

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“It’s a privatized loss” so far, Saunders said, but beer lovers might feel the impacts.

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“There could be a taste change based on what the composition of the water is,” she said.

Plenty of brewers are already taking active steps to reduce their use of water as the climate changes and reduces the availability of fresh water, said Paul Gatza, director of the U.S.-based Brewers Association.

“Breweries are focused very strongly on reducing that water use per barrel of beer,” he said, with some finding “interesting, tricky ways” to capture water used in one part of the brewing process to reuse in another. The association has a variety of guides aimed at helping breweries of all sizes become more sustainable.

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In Ontario, Beau’s Brewery is doing exactly that. The brewery has reduced its own consumption by more than half, relies on natural gas, and sends its beer out in all recyclable packaging.

“That’s the best way to minimize what’s coming,” said CEO Steven Beauchesne, “to be part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem.”

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The brewery realized pretty quickly it would need to diversify, he said, given a worldwide hops shortage followed pretty soon after their launch.

Beau’s turned to gruit, an old-style of brewing more common before hops that uses a variety of botanicals.

“It’s now become something that we love making,” Beauchesne said.

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It has the added bonus of making their products less at the whim of climate changes. Too much wet can ruin hops, Beauchesne said. Now, he said, more and more of the hops farmers he speaks with are looking at diversifying what they grow to guard against uncertain weather.

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Last summer was so wet in the eastern Ontario region where Beau’s is based, Beauchesne said, that one farmer actually lost his entire crop.

“I think as we see more and more extreme weather happening, things like droughts and mildew are going to be increasingly common.”

But as for when beer drinkers can expect to see the effects of climate change on their favourite drink? That’s probably a long way off, Mittag said. The malting industry is pretty good at making the best of the unexpected.

“They can take a bad crop year and turn it into something usable,” he said. “That happens all the time and they still create their magic within the malting house.”

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