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Less beer in a warming world

Anne-Sophie Brändlin
October 15, 2018

Increasing droughts around the world may reduce barley yields, resulting in shortages of beer, a fall in global consumption and a rise in prices for the beloved beverage around the world, a new study finds.

Two people toast beer krugs at Oktoberfest
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

Bad news, beer lovers: Climate change doesn't just cause rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes and more intense wildfires  -  it could also disrupt the global beer supply, causing severe shortages.

That's because increasingly severe and widespread droughts and heat could trigger a worldwide decline in yields of barley, beer's main ingredient.

This could result in a rise in beer prices and a corresponding drop in beer consumption, suggests a new international study conducted by the University of California, Irvine, and the United Kingdom's University of East Anglia (UEA), among others.

Read more: Germany's farmers feel the heat of climate change

Making rich people care about climate change

For the study, researchers from the UK, China, Mexico and the United States identified extreme climate events and modeled the impacts of these climate events on barley yields in 34 world regions.

They then examined the effects of the resulting barley supply shock on the supply and price of beer in each region under a range of future climate scenarios.

"It's the first time this has been done," study coordinator and lead UK author Dabo Guan told DW.

The professor of climate change at UEA said they wanted people in western and developed countries to be aware that climate change will seriously impact their private lives. 

"They may not suffer hunger from climate change the way people in developing countries will, but their quality of life will seriously decline," he added.

Ears of barely with a sunset in the backtground
Global barley yields could be reduced by roughly 20 percent due to extreme weatherImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Global consequences

Results from the new study reveal potential average yield losses ranging from 3 to 17 percent, depending on the severity of the conditions. 

During the most severe climate events, the results indicate global beer consumption would decline by 16 percent, or 29 billion liters (7.6 billion gallons), which is roughly equal to the total amount of beer consumed in the United States annually.

Beer prices would also double.

Even in milder scenarios, the study shows beer consumption could drop 4 percent, while beer prices could rise 15 percent.

Read more: Climate change and extreme weather: Science is proving the link

Where would the beer run out?

Countries that have consumed the most beer per capita in recent years would also be affected most in terms of absolute beer consumption.

With 1.4 billion citizens, China is now the number one country when it comes to beer consumption by volume. With increasing extreme weather events, beer consumption there could fall by 4.34 billion liters — translating into roughly 10 percent of current consumption.

A group of men enjoying a beer at a beer festival in China
China's beer consumption could fall by 4.34 billion liters, roughly 10 percent of current consumptionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Imaginechina/Yu Fangping

In the US, beer consumption could drop 20 percent as droughts and heat waves strike. Some Americans might just have to give up certain popular drinking games, such as beer pong and keg stands. 

In Germany — a country famed for its pilsner — beer consumption could decrease by roughly 30 percent. That would make for a very different Oktoberfest.   

And in the UK, consumption could fall by more than a third, while the price of the beloved tipple could as much as double. 

Price rises in beer-loving countries 

Changes in barley supply would affect the amount available for making beer in each region differently, as distribution of the grain for livestock feed, beer brewing and other uses depends on region-specific prices.

Certain beer-loving European countries would be hit hardest by high prices, thanks to an average drop of 27 to 38 percent in the supply available for breweries in more extreme weather event years.

Bottles of Budweiser on a counter
Beer prices in the Czech Republic could shoot up to several times what it costs nowImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Cizek

"In terms of relative change, the most affected countries are Eastern European countries, such as Estonia, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Their price is going to increase six or seven times," Guan said. "So a bottle of beer that's currently 70 cents will cost $3.50 [€3]."

Read more: Six things you can do to avoid climate catastrophe

Read more: Water and climate change: 'Era of stable abundance is over'

Although these EU countries brew a lot of beer, and their population drinks a lot of beer, they don't produce much beer-quality barley. Most of the barley is imported from other countries.

And one EU country famed for its stout could see a dramatic change in price and drinking habits as a result. 

"Ireland is going to have the highest change in terms of the absolute price change," Guan said. "So while an Irish citizen is currently paying around $2.50 for half a liter of beer, that will roughly double to $5 during extreme weather events."

That could result in beer consumption drop from roughly one bottle per day to one bottle per week per person, added Guan. 

In the end, the researchers concluded that whether or not people still get to enjoy a beer will likely depend on their willingness to pay.

Two people holding pints of Guinness and wearing leprechaun hats
Irish people could soon be paying double for their St. Patrick's Day stout Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Himbrechts

Why does it matter?

Climate change is not only having an impact on the alcoholic drinks sector; it's set to affect world food production in general.

Read more: Climate change and farming: 'Unpredictability is here to stay'

Still, luxury goods, such as beer, may be the first to go when crops are needed to secure food supplies. The same goes for other "luxury" items such as wine, tea, coffee and chocolate.

"With increasing extreme weather events, luxury items will be getting very expensive or not available at all," Guan said.

"Of course it doesn't kill you," he added. "But your quality of life will be seriously compromised and social stability will come under threat. And maybe that will shake people awake to do something about climate change now."