Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is a gas that plays an important role in several aspects of the brewing process. In addition to providing the carbonation in cans or bottles, CO2 is also used in tap lines when you order a draft beer and it can be used to purge tanks of oxygen. Of course, things being what they are in 2020, the reason we’re bringing this up is because the craft beer industry is currently experiencing a CO2 shortage that could affect the beer supply. And yes, coronavirus is largely to blame.
According to Brewbound, both brewers and gas suppliers have confirmed the CO2 shortage. Brewbound explains it this way: “Most commercially used CO2 is a byproduct of ethanol production, which is used for gasoline. If ethanol is not produced, neither is CO2.” At the start of the pandemic, driving was reduced as people stopped commuting to work or traveling pretty much anywhere else; this made demand for gasoline go down, which took the CO2 supply down along with it—even though demand for CO2 remained high. (It’s not like the pandemic made us abruptly halt our beer drinking, after all.)
Plus, CO2 is highly sought after by all kinds of industries, not just brewers. Brewbound notes that “The beverage industry — alcoholic and non-alcoholic — ranks third in commercial use of CO2, behind the food industry and dry ice, which is used in pharmaceuticals, water treatment, metal welding and more.” Indeed, beverages are a distant third in this list; food producers use four times as much CO2 as brewers. So when CO2 is scarce, competition for resources becomes fierce.
Rich Gottwald, president and CEO of the Compressed Gas Association, told Brewbound that the CGA’s network is trying to distribute the supply as equitably as possible so that businesses (including breweries) don’t shutter due to lack of CO2. Even though driving has picked back up since the start of the pandemic, the CO2 supply remains tight, and some breweries have started sourcing it from Canada to meet demand. Add to this the fact that aluminum shortages are affecting can production, and, well, we should probably all start acclimating our palates to nitro beers served exclusively on tap, just to be safe.