Climate change brewing trouble in the beer industry

Wisconsin’s love of beer is unmatched, but the beer many people know, and love is changing because of the changing climate.
Published: Sep. 1, 2022 at 8:52 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Wisconsin’s love of beer is unmatched, but the beer many people know, and love is changing because of the changing climate.

Brewer and co-owner of Giant Jones Brewery Jessica Jones has been serving up social suds in Madison since 2018.

“Beer is one of these great things. I mean, flavor is one of these great things that is just universal,” Jones said. “Everybody has something unique to bring to the table when they’re tasting and doing that together, just like breaks down all these other barriers that we stick in between each other”

But a barrier Jones is seeing in the beer industry is how climate change is affecting the way beer looks and tastes.

“Beer is different in 2022, simply because globally, climate change created poor conditions for growing barley and wheat,” Jones said. “So, protein content is up, which makes it really hard to make the beers that people are used to with the same color and body.”

It all boils down to agriculture. Paul Mitchell, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at UW Madison said climate change is affecting the growing seasons for many of beer’s main ingredients like barley, wheat, and hops.

Mitchell is a member of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts Agriculture Working Group. He is researching ways to increase agriculture’s resiliency to climate change through different breeding techniques.

“You can breed things like frost tolerance, or tolerance to drought. There’s even diseases are changing because of the climate changing, different plant diseases are problems, and they can breed resistance to diseases,” Mitchell said.

He admits, implementing this research can take time.

“It’s expensive and slow. That’s the thing. These things don’t happen tomorrow,” he said.

Right now, Mitchell worries about the increasing severe weather like droughts, floods, and wildfires already having a biological effect on grain and hops.

“Smoke from a fire can change how much sun intensity you get, because it’s more shaded well that can change the flavor even though it won’t make it taste smoky. It doesn’t but it might change the kind of sunlight it gets,” Mitchell said.

These changes could cost you. Much of the country’s barley and hops are grown in Northwestern states.

“It’s a supply chain disruption. I think that kind of thing could become more apparent for certain specialized foods, especially if you have it tied to a very specific area of the country or the world,” Mitchell said.

“Prices are going up. I’ve gotten price increases from almost all of my suppliers this year. At least two if not four times,” Jones said.

Giant Jones Brewery is committed to keeping the industry environmentally sustainable and cutting greenhouse gas emissions by recycling water and having organic certification.

“What chemicals we can use are pre-approved for mitigating their environmental impacts,” Jones said.

Most recently, the brewery has implemented a reusable and returnable bottle program.

“What’s the point of anything in a one-way package and so we specifically are in glass bottles because they can be reused where that’s never an option with cans,” Jones said.

For every bottle returned to the brewery, the customer gets a 25-cent coupon to use at Giant Jones.

Jones admits this system of returning bottles will be something customers have to get used to, but it’s not a new concept. Mitchell said this is a practice that many companies have walked away from in recent years.

“I remember those recycled bottles had all beat up on the outside because they’d been through whatever machinery how many times and so that’s just the way it was, and we’ve gone away from that, and I don’t see why we can’t go back,” Mitchell said.

Jones believes it is an important step in creating a more environmentally friendly industry.

“What we’re doing in this decade is going to have huge impacts on what the world’s like in 20 or 30 years,” Jones said.