The beer brewing industry is witnessing a market shift in the United States as consumers search for beers with robust and creative flavors. There are now 2,800 breweries in the United States, which contributed $246.5 billion to the economy in 2012. Beer is an agricultural product, and a slight variation in the main ingredients—water, hops, and barley—can have drastic effects on the flavor. Flavor is everything to brewing companies: it’s why their customers love their product and keep coming back.

Breweries will therefore adopt extreme measures to ensure their product's flavor remains unchanged at a reasonable price. But climate change is exacerbating extreme weather patterns—such as floods, powerful storms, and rising temperatures—that impede breweries’ quality control efforts. These extreme weather patterns can affect crop yields and quality, thus fundamentally changing the flavor of a beer. Often times, the flavor between batches of the same beer recipe are so dissimilar, breweries are forced to advertise it as an entirely separate beer.

Breweries have recognized this as a serious issue and have moved to protect their supply chains from the effects of climate change while also lessening their contribution to a changing climate. Twenty-four breweries signed onto a Climate Declaration organized in February by Ceres, a nonprofit that mobilizes companies and investor groups to lead on climate change initiatives. Climate change is more than an economic issue for these companies: many believe it is socially responsible to minimize their impact on the environment.

Jennifer Orgolini, New Belgium Brewing Company's sustainability director, stated in 2011, “If you drink beer now, the issue of climate change is impacting you right now . . .” Already, harvests of hops and barley have been damaged by droughts in England, heavy rainfall in Australia, and warming temperatures elsewhere, affecting both the quality and availability of the ingredients. This puts pressure on craft breweries as they seek to ensure quality at an affordable price.

The agricultural ingredients are not the only part of the beer being affected. Water resources in the United States are increasingly being put under pressure from climate change. Last year was the hottest year on record and much of the western United States has witnessed severe droughts in recent years. California, for instance, is in its fourth year of severe drought, prompting the state’s first ever mandatory water restrictions. The Golden State alone is home to 400 craft breweries, which consume enormous amounts of water. For every gallon of beer produced, three to eight gallons of water can go into the brew process. With the brewing process being so water intensive, breweries started installing more efficient water systems back in the mid-1980s, to cut down on costs. They are now doubling down on their efforts. Through equipment upgrades and behavioral changes, beer giant Anheuser-Busch has reduced its companywide water use by 32 percent since 2011, and MillerCoors has cut its water use by 9.2 percent since 2012. But while larger, national breweries can afford brew equipment which significantly reduces water use, many of the small-volume craft brewers cannot.

Smaller brewers are simply less equipped to deal with the drought. According to Evan Weinberg, co-founder of Cismontane Brewing Company in Rancho Santa Margarita California, “Small brewers waste more water than the big guys because our equipment is less efficient.” Despite this added difficulty, some craft brewers have been able to reduce water use or find more reliable sources. For example, Lagunitas Brewing Company has reduced its water use by 10 percent since 2012. For those without the financial means, some craft breweries have been forced to limit growth and production while others are facing the possibility of moving out of drought-affected states.

In addition to making their water use more efficient, many breweries are also strong supporters of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Craft brewers have installed energy efficient and onsite energy systems in their breweries, which lower carbon emissions while also reducing costs and increasing profit margins. Some of these systems include:

  1. Energy efficiency measures for buildings, such as better insulation and using recycled steam from the brewing process for heat. Many breweries are seeking LEED certifications for their buildings.
  2. An onsite water treatment plant that uses anaerobic digestion to generate renewable natural gas for use in onsite combined heat and power units
  3. Solar panels on brewery rooftops
  4. Monitoring green-house gas emissions at the plant
  5. Reducing transportation costs by reducing packaging and switching to cans rather than bottles

Many breweries across the United States have invested in some or all of these systems because it is financially sound for their businesses. However, the economics alone do not compel the leadership of these companies to act; many also believe reducing their impact on the environment is socially responsible. “The health of our community and our business depends on the health of the natural environment,” states Jennifer Orgolini of New Belgium Brewing Company.

New Belgium Brewing Company has signed onto the Ceres climate declaration of February 2015 and Jenn Vervier, its director of strategy and sustainability stated, “We believe that a strong economy and a stable climate go hand in hand . . . we’ve committed to making our business sustainable, and it’s more important than ever that businesses engage with policymakers to support forward-thinking climate and energy policies.”

Climate change is a long-term trend affecting the world today and the extreme weather patterns it exacerbates are affecting, among many other things, our ability to brew beer. The beer brewing industry recognizes climate change as a serious threat and has moved to reduce its impact on the environment. Let us drink to its success!


Author: Samuel Beirne