Climate change is altering the taste of our beer

Beer doesn’t grow on trees, but its components all come from the ground.
Beer doesn’t grow on trees, but its components all come from the ground.
Photo: Tony Robins (Getty Images)
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I’ve been writing about alcohol for a number of years, and one of the most frequent conversations I’ve had with brewers, distillers, and winemakers is about how climate change is already impacting their businesses. Sometimes this is due to the increased frequency of fires and drought, other times it’s because heat impacts the quality and yield of crops. Once, at an event, a winemaker from a popular Long Island winery said that he thought climate change was great for business because he could sell more rosé during the hot weather (😑). Now, an article written by Dr. Colleen Doherty, an associate professor of molecular and structural biochemistry at North Carolina State University, addresses how climate change is literally changing how beer tastes.

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It’s important to point out that while Doherty’s story discusses how the taste of beer is changing, her focus is not on the natural evolution of style or manufacturing. Instead, she specifically talks about how temperature shifts are so dramatic, and seasons are now so hot, that they “disrupt how plants function, hurts yields, affects the cost of the ingredients, and affect how beer tastes.”

It’s hard not to have a visceral stress reaction as Doherty explains the insidious impacts of climate change, and it’s humbling to learn just how much we’re screwing our future beer (and, you know, planet). Her story addresses how changes in temperature impacts the growth cycle of ingredients such as hops, barley, and wheat; she discusses how heat can influence terroir, which in turn can literally change the protein and starch content in barley; she touches on how warmer nights can make pests more active and can influence the presence of different compounds in hops, potentially changing their taste; and she describes how nighttime heat can give a boost to “fungal and bacterial pests.”

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It’s a fascinating read, and while Doherty’s story is detailed, it’s also not overtly technical and isn’t so lengthy as to be unapproachable. If you’ve wondered how climate change might impact one of your favorite beverages—or if you’re just curious in general about how rising temperatures impact the growth of plants—her story is definitely worth taking the time to read in full.

Jacob Dean is a food and travel writer and psychologist based in New York. He likes beer, less traveled airports, and is allergic to grasshoppers (the insect, not the mixed drink.)

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DISCUSSION

Dead_Elvis wishes ill upon the herbs

I wonder if/how it will impact consumer preferences. Over the last few summers, I’ve found myself reaching for pilseners & light lagers, dry ciders, and low-alcohol white wines (vinho verde, Albariño, Grüner Veltliner) far more often than I used to, although I still find Anchor Porter to be a killer pairing with pretty much anything that comes off the grill. Whether or not that has anything to do with climate change, I’m not entirely sure, but there was a time when a high-octane IPA or bourbon, rocks, was more appealing than anything else, even in the swampiest part of August. Not so much lately.