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Climate Change Is Creating a Hops Shortage for Brewers

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the extreme and irregular heat experienced last year in Yakima Valley heavily impacted hops yields

by Alex Swerdloff
Feb 9 2016, 6:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Kompania Piwowarska

Life may not be all beer and Skittles, but if drastic measures aren't implemented immediately, we may never again know the embrace of that nectar of the gods that is beer. Like ever.

Despite being the second largest hops-producing country in the world, America's commercial hops largely come from three states: Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

In fact, Washington alone is said to account for almost three-quarters of all hops production in this nation. According to the Hop Growers of America, 71 percent of US hops in 2015 originated in Washington, while Oregon and Idaho accounted for 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

The problem is this: The American Northwest—and Washington State in particular—have been facing an unsettling reality in recent years. Climate change has wrought record hot and dry conditions in the region, and if weather conditions continue in this direction—as pretty much everyone expects them to—the future of beer may be changed forever.

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the extreme and irregular heat experienced last year in Yakima Valley, the heart of Washington's hops-growing region, heavily impacted hops yields. That's mostly because the area relies largely on melting snowpack for its summertime water supply. After Washington officials recorded the lowest snowpack in state history last May, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency. Seven months later, the USDA released the 2015 National Hop Report, which found that growers in the region had experienced losses in the Centennial and Willamette varieties of hops, neither of which handle extreme heat well.

"Early season aroma varieties, particularly European noble types, were most impacted by the extreme heat during the latter half of June, as bloom was underway," explained the executive director of the Washington Hop Commission, Ann George. Despite all of this, the warning bell wasn't signaled, largely because Washington nonetheless managed to produce a record amount of hops, at 59.4 million pounds.

"Most growers were able to adapt to last year's water shortages by relying more heavily on groundwater supplies and other sources," added George.

Still, many—including the scientists at NOAA—worry that the growers won't be so lucky in the future. In addition to the hops problem, it's important to remember that beer is made up of 90 to 95 percent water, so the Washington State drought impacted beer production in more than just one way. Some brewers have begun to rely on groundwater with results that are far from optimal; one told NPR that using groundwater for beer is "like brewing with Alka-Seltzer."

But this is America, after all, and we love our beer—so perhaps the threat to America's favorite alcoholic beverage will force our hand, and we'll finally get serious about the problem of climate change.