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Warming planet's cold beer supply threatened by climate strain on hops, barley, water

World beer supply threatened by warming planet
World beer supply threatened by warming planet 03:43

Earth's changing climate is not just causing increasingly punishing droughts, intense wildfires, and extreme weather, it could disrupt the world's beer supply by as much as 16%. Now, California scientists are brewing up solutions to the dilemma.

In Oakland's Fruitvale district during Oktoberfest, Morgan Cox brews and serves up all kinds of craft beers. On this day, he is making a batch of his Kolsch-style Town Beer.

"It's an ale that's fermented at lager temperatures," explained Cox. "It gives it a unique flavor."

This batch uses 20 bags of malted barley, fresh water, yeast, and just the right amount of hops, the flowering part of the Humulus lupulus plant that gives beer its bitter taste and aroma.

But as the earth gets warmer, a cold brew may be harder to find. Three critical ingredients - barley, water, and hops - are all under a growing threat.

"It certainly does concern me," said Cox, adding how beer is an agricultural product and very much affected by climate change. 

A recent study found warmer temperatures, severe drought, and extreme weather could trigger a decline in the world's beer supply by as much as 16%,

But beer experts in California say they are up to the challenge.

"It's one of those things on the horizon that we're keeping a very close eye on," explained University of California, Davis professor Glen Patrick Fox. He holds the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professorship in Malting and Brewing Sciences at one of the most respected brewing schools in the world.

Fox told CBS News Bay Area that when it comes to beer, the more you learn about it, the less you know.

"It still throws us curveballs and surprises us," noted the Australian native. "Still trying to understand the complex chemistry and biochemistry that goes on in brewing beer."

Fox's team is looking into how extreme weather can impact the quality of the barley. One finding is that excess heat can alter the size and shape of the grain. 

"We're slowly unraveling this really complex system and we spend time talking to the maltsters and brewers about how we can actually provide better information for them," Fox explained.

With the altered grain, it takes longer to break down its starch into sugar, needed by the yeast to convert it into alcohol.

"Possibly there's some new methods they could implement that would flag some of these potential problems," said Fox.

Storms and wildfires can also cause problems. Rain at the wrong time may cause the grain to germinate before harvest and may also cause mold during storage. Smoke from wildfires can contaminate the hops and ruin them.

"There can be more grain rejected. There can be more hops rejected," said Fox. "And there's a cost. There's always a cost to all of this."

But with beer, there's also creativity and innovation. When Cox first opened up his brewery, in 2009, there was a worldwide hops shortage thanks to a drought in Europe and a hops warehouse fire in Washington state.

Faced with closing before he opened, Cox made his first beer using an ancient technique that flavors and bitters the beer with gruit, a collection of wild plants and herbs.

That first beer - called "Golden State of Mind" - remains a best seller today. The gruit is made with chamomile, orange zest and coriander.

"It has a really big cult following," said Cox, with a big smile.  

Fox said some brewers today use pine needles to bitter their brews. He believes the industry is going to face this threat, carry the load, and do all the hard work to ensure beer drinkers won't notice any changes caused by climate change.

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