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Three Ways Climate Change Is Going To Ruin Your Beer

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"Three Ways Climate Change Is Going To Ruin Your Beer"

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Water is beer’s primary ingredient, and brewers are worried about having enough.

In 2011, it took brewing giant Anheuser-Busch Inbev 3.5 barrels of water to produce 1 barrel of beer. Due to concerns over drought and shrinking water supplies, the world’s largest brewer set a goal to drop that number to 3.25 barrels by 2012. It met that goal, and this week, Pete Kraemer, the company’s vice president for supply said that they had shrunk that number down to 3.15 barrels, with plans to drop it still further. For context, their plant in Houston alone produces 12 million barrels of beer each year.

The drought in California already has breweries that rely on the Russian River for water scrambling to find new sources, like a reverse osmosis system that’d purify groundwater, or picking up stakes and moving to Chicago.

Most of the water used to make beer does not make it into beer bottles — it ends up as wastewater, which in turn requires energy to treat. Matt Silver was a NASA researcher who decided to use his knowledge of life-support systems in space to create a water treatment system that turns industrial wastewater into electricity. The water that comes out of a brewery, for example, contains too much in the way of organic compounds to be dumped down the drain — but those compounds can feed microbes that turn it into methane, which can be used to heat and power a factory. His company, Cambrian Innovations, received seed money from the EPA, NASA, and the Pentagon and has been selling systems that do this to breweries like Lagunitas in drought-parched California. The state uses around 20 percent of its total electricity generated to treat, transport, and use water.

Large brewers are also concerned about barley, the second ingredient of beer.

In recent years, heavy rains in Australia and drought in England have damaged barely crops. That pattern of heavier downpours and drier droughts is likely to accelerate as greenhouse gases trap heat and warm the planet, according to the National Climate Assessment. Anheuser-Busch Inbev receives a lot of their barley from Idaho. Howard Neibling, a professor in the University of Idaho’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, told the Houston Chronicle that farmers see less water coming as snowpacks decline, and have tried to become more efficient with their water usage.

SABMiller, the second-largest brewer in the world, tried brewing with cassava, a widely-available staple crop in Africa and South America. The project in Mozambique was initially difficult because the potato-like root vegetable rots quickly, but through use of a mobile processing plant, the company was able to launch the first commercial-scale cassava-based beer, Impala. SABMillion likes this because it diversifies their product base, insulating them from droughts that have endangered barley crops in the past. Local farmers also like the commitment to local, sustainable farming.

The third ingredient of beer is hops, which is also facing pressures from a warming world.

A study from 2009 suggested that the quality of Saaz hops from the Czech Republic has been falling since 1954 due to warmer temperatures. This is true for hops-growing regions across Europe. “If you drink beer now, the issue of climate change is impacting you right now,” Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Company sustainability director Jenn Orgolini said in 2011. “Craft brewers — the emphasis there is on craft. We make something, and it’s a deeply agricultural product.”

Beyond adapting to the impacts of climate change, however, some breweries are directly trying to lower their carbon emissions that help fuel climate change. Many are finding it’s also saving them money.

Earlier this year, the Outer Banks Brewing Station told the Triangle Business Journal that it was the first brewery in the country to be directly powered by wind energy. It installed a small wind turbine on an 80-foot tower, which will shave off $150-250 per month in electricity costs. EarthTechling points out that though the $50,000 cost would not be earned back until 2020, the PR the purchase granted the small brewery probably paid back the costs already.

Abita Brewing Company last year installed 340 solar panels on its warehouse roof, which was large enough to rank near the top of all commercial solar installations in the state of Louisiana. Solar systems have been popular with craft breweries and hard cider companies, like Woodchuck in Vermont. It offsets their power cheaply or heats their water, cutting emissions and costs.

New Belgium Brewing Company last year was recognized by the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council for putting in place systems that allow it to divert 99.8 percent of its waste from the landfill.

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