It’s getting harder to grow coffee, tea and grapes for wine on a hotter planet – and now researchers say, climate change may be coming for your IPA.
A study out Oct. 10 found drought and higher temperatures will lead to a decrease in the quality and quantity of hops, the aromatic plants that give beer its flavor.
By 2050 in Europe, the research projects, yields for traditional aroma hops will drop by 4% to 18%. Production of hop acids, which are key for flavoring, will fall by 20% to 31%.
Hop growers are already seeing the impacts.
“Over the past number of decades we can see a decrease of hop quality,” said Miroslav Trnka at the Czech Academy of Sciences, one of the researchers of the new paper, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.
“I’m sure we can find a way to grow hops that, in the future, can withstand these conditions,” he said. But, he added, “You cannot wait until the industry collapses.”
A delicate flower
Hops present more challenges for adaptation than wheat or barley because they’re a trickier crop.
“If you look at the map and where the hop growing regions are, you’ll see them in a fairly narrow band of latitude,” said Chuck Skypeck with the Brewers Association in the United States. “They’re very light sensitive.”
Hops need long days of sunlight during the growing season. Then, they need a couple months of colder temperatures and shorter days to flower and produce the part of the plants used in beer brewing. That’s why hops are normally grown in a narrow range of higher latitudes like in central Europe and the Pacific Northwest.
As climate change makes it harder to grow crops in Europe, there’s been an explosion in demand for hops from breweries adapting to changing palettes. In recent years, a booming craft beer industry has meant increasing demand for high-quality hops to make IPAs and hoppy lagers.
“Craft brewers love hops with their IPAs,” Skypeck said. “We’ve subsequently seen nascent hop growing areas really struggle because they’re not meeting those conditions.”
In the United States, hops are grown largely in the Yakima Valley, where humidity is low and conditions are ripe for the finicky plant. These are different conditions than Europe – and there’s more infrastructure for irrigation because it’s a region that’s accustomed to dealing with little rainfall. But U.S. hop-growers have had a couple of tough summers, too.
Adapting to a new normal
For the Carlsberg Group in Copenhagen, experimentation and adaptation isn’t new – but there is a new sense of urgency. Though the brewing company gave up hop breeding shortly after World War II, they’ve reinvested in this research in the past few years. Part of the project has been to sequence the full hop genome to better understand how the crop could be adapted to be more resilient under new climate conditions.
“It’s going to be difficult,” said Birgitte Skadhauge, head of the Carlsberg Research Laboratory and a professor at Copenhagen University. “It is really science and innovation that have to help us to really come up with some of the new big breakthroughs and revolutions to cope with this very extreme weather.”
She suggests it could be possible to breed hops to be heat tolerant or drought tolerant. “Genes can help us to make even more robust plants,” she said.
It’s difficult to say exactly how these challenges for hop-growers will be passed along to consumers. The changing quality and quantity of hops could affect the taste of your favorite beer – or it could just make it more expensive, if brewers need to use more hops to achieve the same flavor.
“I would be surprised if we find a silver bullet solution because the changes are really complex,” Trnka said. Still, he feels optimistic about the prospects for adaptation in European hop-growing.
Perhaps the more challenging part of the equation is limiting global warming.
“Adaptation is possible, but only if you keep warming to a reasonable level,” said Trnka.