How researchers, farmers and brewers want to safeguard beer against climate change

Nov 11, 2023, 5:15 AM

Brewer Scott Peterson retrieves spent grain from a lauterton while brewing a German-style Pilsner a...

Brewer Scott Peterson retrieves spent grain from a lauterton while brewing a German-style Pilsner at Von Ebert Brewing in Portland, Ore., Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. The craft brewery have had hops they depend upon from Europe impacted by hot, dry summers over the last couple of years. That’s why some researchers are working on varieties of hops that can better withstand summer heat. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

(AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

MOUNT ANGEL, Ore. (AP) — On a bright day this fall, tractors crisscrossed Gayle Goschie’s farm about an hour outside Portland, Oregon. Goschie is in the beer business — a fourth-generation hops farmer. Fall is the off-season, when the trellises are bare, but recently, her farming team has been adding winter barley, a relatively newer crop in the world of beer, to their rotation, preparing barley seeds by the bucketful.

In the face of human-caused climate change impacting water access and weather patterns in the Willamette Valley — a region known for hops growing — Goschie will need all the new strategies the farm can get to sustain what they produce and provide to local and larger breweries alike.

All of a sudden, climate change “was not coming any longer,” Goschie said, “it was here.”

Climate change is anticipated to only further the challenges producers are already seeing in two key beer crops, hops and barley. Some hops and barley growers in the U.S. say they’ve already seen their crops impacted by extreme heat, drought and unpredictable growing seasons. Researchers are working with growers to help counter the effects of more volatile weather systems with improved hop varieties that can withstand drought and by adding winter barley to the mix.

Researchers have known for a while that beer production will be affected by climate change, said Mirek Trnka, a professor at the Global Change Research Institute. He and his team recently authored a study modeling the effect of climate change on hops, out last month in Nature Communications, that projected that yields in Europe will decrease between four to 18% by 2050. His first study on hops 15 years ago issued a similar warning to his latest paper.

“If we don’t act, we’re just going to also lose things that we consider not to be, for example, sensitive or related to climate change. Like beer,” he said.

Climate change moves faster than we might realize – but still too slowly for many to notice, he said. The fact that researchers have started picking up on this means that there’s promise for adaptation and solutions in the form of farming changes, but Trnka still has his concerns.

Hops declines in Europe mean changes for American producers too. One craft brewery that gets some of their hops from Goschie said that the company is trying to replicate the flavors of German hops using new varieties grown in the U.S. because the ones they depend upon from Europe have been impacted by hot, dry summers over the last couple of years.

That’s why some researchers are working on varieties of hops that can better withstand summer heat, warmer winters, changing pests and diseases and less snowfall, which could mean less available irrigation, said Shaun Townsend, an associate professor and senior researcher at Oregon State University. Townsend is working on a project where he subjects hops to drought stress to eventually create more drought-tolerant varieties.

It’s no easy task, one that can take a decade, and one that also has to take into account brewers’ main considerations, taste and yield. But the possibility of running out of water is a reality that’s on people’s radars, he said.

Better hops might still be a technology that’s a work in progress, but the story of barley improvements is already well underway. Kevin Smith, professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota, said that while spring barley is the dominant type for the U.S. beer industry, winter barley – which is planted in the fall and kept on fields during the coldest months of the year – may be more feasible now in the Midwest, where other barley types had been given up due to climate, plant disease and economic factors in favor of crops that are less risky.

Winter barley may also be desirable for craft breweries that have started emphasizing local ingredients and who want something grown close by. And it can also be grown as a cover crop, meaning that farmers can prevent erosion, improve their soil health and keep carbon stored in the ground by planting it during the off-season when fields are normally bare.

But there hasn’t always been complete consensus on the promise of winter barley. Smith told a story about his predecessor, who was a longtime spring barley breeder. Another scientist – Patrick Hayes, a professor at Oregon State University – was describing to him his hopes for the future of winter barley. Smith’s predecessor wrote on a business card, “it can’t be done,” referring to his firm belief that winter barley just wasn’t worth the trouble.

Hayes kept the card in his office, and has made it his life’s mission to work on improving winter barley.

There are now winter barley programs at nearly every state in the country, said Ashley McFarland, the vice president and technical director of the American Malting Barley Association. She doesn’t think winter barley will ever be the entirety of the crop in the U.S., but says that producers will need to diversify their risk in order to be more resilient to climate shocks.

Molson Coors and Anheuser Busch, the two biggest beer companies in the U.S., issue annual environmental reports that pledge commitments to sustainably sourcing hops and barley and reducing water usage, but neither company responded to an Associated Press request for comment on the specifics of those efforts.

Hops can be a finnicky crop when it comes to their climate, and without water, you simply can’t make beer, said Douglass Miller, senior lecturer at Cornell who teaches a class on beer. He added that the price of beer might rise due to climate impacts on the supply chain — but so will the price of everything else on the menu. “All beverage categories are being impacted by this,” he said.

No matter what farmers and companies do with hops and winter barley, climate change may affect what beer-lovers are able to buy in the future.

“It will be increasingly difficult for us as plant breeders to provide new varieties of barley and new varieties of hops that can meet, just, all of the terrors of the climate change process,” Hayes said. “And I say terrors because … it’s that volatility, which is so, so frightening.”


Associated Press journalist Dee-Ann Durbin contributed from Detroit. Walling reported from Chicago.


Follow Melina Walling on X, formerly known as Twitter: @MelinaWalling


Read more of AP’s climate coverage at http://www.apnews.com/climate-and-environment


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

United States News

Associated Press

Judge drops felony charges against ex-elections official in Virginia

MANASSAS, Va. (AP) — A Virginia judge has dismissed felony charges against a former county elections official accused of misconduct in the 2020 election, a decision made after state prosecutors said a key witness changed his story. At the prosecutors’ request, the judge on Friday dismissed a felony charge of corrupt conduct and one for […]

2 hours ago

Philadelphia police officers outside of the Macy's in Center City after reports of an alleged stabb...

Associated Press

Man suspected of shoplifting stabs 2 security guards at Philadelphia store, killing 1

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A man who had tried to steal merchandise from a department store in Philadelphia returned 15 minutes later and stabbed two security guards, killing one and injuring the other, city police said. The attack at the Macy’s store occurred shortly after 11 a.m. Monday. Security guards saw the man attempting to steal […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Treasury creates new strike force as US and China pursue crackdown on illicit fentanyl trafficking

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Treasury Department on Monday announced a new strike force to help combat illicit fentanyl trafficking as the U.S. and China step up efforts to stop the movement of the powerful opioid and drug-making materials into the U.S. The Counter-Fentanyl Strike Force will bring together personnel and intelligence from throughout the Treasury […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Man suspected of killing 4, including a 1-year-old, at a Dallas home kills self during police chase

DALLAS (AP) — A man suspected of killing four people, including a 1-year-old boy, and injuring a 15-year-old girl in a shooting at a Dallas home fatally shot himself during a chase with law enforcement, police said Monday. Byron Carillo, 21, fled the home after the shooting late Sunday afternoon and then stole a vehicle, […]

3 hours ago

In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, Airman 1st Class Jackson Ligon, 341st Missile Mainten...

Associated Press

The Air Force is expanding a review of cancers for service members who worked with nuclear missiles

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Air Force is expanding its study of whether service members who worked with nuclear missiles have had unusually high rates of cancer after a preliminary review determined that a deeper examination is needed. The initial study was launched in response to reports that many who served are now ill. The Air […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Former top Ohio utility regulator surrenders in $60 million bribery scheme linked to energy bill

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s former top utility regulator surrendered Monday in connection with a $60 million bribery scheme related to a legislative bailout for two Ohio nuclear power plants that has already resulted in a 20-year prison sentence for a former state House speaker. Sam Randazzo, former chair of the Public Utilities Commission of […]

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(KTAR News Graphic)...

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

Follow @KTAR923...

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

Follow @KTAR923...

The 2023 Diamondbacks are a good example to count on the underdog

The Arizona Diamondbacks made the World Series as a surprise. That they made the playoffs at all, got past the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Wild Card round, swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS and won two road games in Philadelphia to close out a full seven-game NLCS went against every expectation. Now, […]

How researchers, farmers and brewers want to safeguard beer against climate change