Tears in our beer: Climate change could hurt beer drinkers

By: - November 18, 2023 5:30 am

Workers unload hops for processing at Coleman Agriculture in St. Paul. Researchers are studying how the locations where hops are grown affects the way beer tastes. (Erika Bolstad/Stateline News)

Climate change may be very bad news for beer drinkers.

A new report in the journal Nature Communications shows that climate change is responsible for the decrease in quantity and quality of hops produced in Europe. And that trend is projected to continue as climate change is projected to continue.

That news could be problematic not just for Northwest hops farmers, but also bad for the beer drinkers.

Montana ranks third in national beer consumption per capita, at an average of 41 gallons per year. That’s behind North Dakota, which averages 45.8 gallons and New Hampshire, which averages 43.9. Oregon is 20th, with 30.3 gallons.

Increasing temperatures and longer, hotter drier summers have hit hops farmers in Europe particularly hard, where growers note not only a decreased quantity, but also a decrease in the alpha content of hops. Alpha content is a measurement that quantifies the bitterness of the hops, a desirable profile for many beer drinkers. Hops that have a high alpha content are often described as having a grapefruit or citrusy aroma.

The hop-growing zone that runs through central Europe also runs through most of the United States, including Oregon.

In the journal article published in September, Nature Communications said it forecasts a decline in hop yield ranging from 4% to 18%, while the alpha content could plummet by as much as 31% in the same time period.

Hops farmers are already seeing evidence of a changing climate pattern, as most European hops growers said hops were maturing 20 days ahead of where they were just 30 years ago.

“The lowest hops yields were negatively affected by a lack of precipitation, while the lowest values of alpha content were caused by extremely high temperatures,” the study said.

That means that the trend toward both hotter and drier summers anywhere hops is grown could reduce not just the yield, or how many hops are produced, but it could also affect the quality of hops, reducing the alpha content – the very characteristic that makes hops “hoppy.”

Using the European areas as a study, scientists and researchers used modeling programs to forecast what hops production will look like into the future. And if climate change isn’t reversed, the trend is troubling for hops producers and consumers.

“Model projections for 2021 to 2050 suggested a decline in hops yields from 4.1% to 18.4%.  A decreased of 20% to 30.8% was also projected for alpha content,” the study’s authors concluded.

Idaho, Washington and Oregon produce the bulk of American-grown hops. The Northwest, which includes those three states, produces more than 60,000 acres of hops out of a total of 63,000 acres nationwide. As of 2021, Montana ranked sixth in hops production, behind Massachusetts and New York.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.