When it comes to the impact of climate change on agriculture, hops aren’t usually the first crop to come to mind. But rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather are taking a toll on hops, barley, and other ingredients used in brewing beer, which are in turn driving up costs.
According to Statista, since 2016, the cost of hops has increased by more than a dollar per pound—and it’s nearly doubled since 2011.
Inflation is partially to blame, but the price of hops is also a result of plain-old supply and demand. Droughts and other inclement weather like prolonged forest fires in California, Oregon, and Washington (where the majority of U.S. hops are grown) have stymied production.
At the same time, popular varieties like IPAs and fruit-forward beers require more hops than standard lagers and other styles of suds, and Americans’ appetite for these brews show no signs of abating.
This confluence of challenges is forcing beer purveyors to seek more sustainable solutions that can maintain production levels without compromising taste. Companies like Colorado-based Sustainable Beverage Technologies (sbt) are also exploring ways to reduce their carbon impact from shipping large quantities of beer across the country.
The genesis of SBT can be traced to when founder Patrick Tatera realized that soda manufacturers cut time and costs by shipping their product as concentrate. The beer world, by contrast, still transports fully finished products.
SBT CEO Gary Tickle says the field was ripe for innovation, especially considering how little has changed in the brewing process over hundreds of years.
“If the monks from Munich came back from the 1500s, they could probably still run a brewhouse,” Tickle says. “That’s not a bad thing because it has its artisanal roots and traditions … but in the modern context of the challenges that face the industry—like many industries—we can’t deny the fact that there are a lot of environmental factors that we have to consider when making beer.”
These factors encompass everything from how the raw materials are grown to how much water is used to the environmental impact from moving beer across the country. The whole process produces a large carbon footprint, Tickle says. Plus, it’s not especially efficient.
To help combat some of the environmental pressures, SBT created BrewVo, a proprietary process that produces condensed beer at one-sixth the volume of traditional beer by removing much of the water needed during standard brewing procedure.
As a concentrate, the beer has intense flavors and must be reconstituted ahead of serving. SBT’s NexDraft Tap System, a patented technology, mixes the condensed beer with water, carbon dioxide, and alcohol to transform it into a recognizable product. It’s like a soda fountain but for beer.
SBT creates the condensed beer using a process it refers to as nested fermentation. After brewing a portion of beer, the BrewVo machine removes alcohol and adds a new batch of wort, allowing for additional fermentation. After repeating the process a handful of times, what’s left is a concentrated nonalcoholic beer base, which can then be packaged alongside the removed alcohol.
The condensed beer is packaged in a disposable bag and shipped in a box, making for an exponentially easier transport than kegs. The process is also more environmentally friendly because once used, the boxes and bags don’t have to be shipped back to the point of origin.
And while the cost surrounding new technology is a perennial concern for businesses, Tickle says it isn’t a concern with the BrewVo and NexDraft systems—quite the opposite.
“It’s cost-competitive pound for pound,” he says. “Everybody across the supply chain, from the manufacturer to the retailer, has a chance to take a piece of the savings from the revised model.”
While SBT delves into the technological side of sustainable beer, companies like Omega Yeast focus on the actual ingredients, specifically the yeast involved in the brewing process.
Yeast is an integral component when making beer, but it isn’t typically the source of those juicy notes that characterize so many IPAs. Instead, fruit-forward beers, which have risen in popularity over the past decade, derive their flavors largely from hops.
When using traditional ingredients, hops act as the supplier for fruity flavors, specifically citra, mosaic, amarillo, and simcoe hops. These varieties are almost exclusively grown in the Pacific Northwest due to licensing, meaning brewers looking to capture in-demand fruity flavors are dependent on that particular region, regardless of where their own operation is based.
Enter engineered yeast.
Laura Burns, director of research and development at Omega Yeast, says these genetically modified strains harness the flavors of hops—without the hops. While brewers still need some type of hops in the mixture, engineered yeast can mimic the flavors, thus making operators less reliant on specialized hops.
“The strains have enzymatic capabilities to release these [flavor] compounds,” Burns says.
And as with the technology behind SBT, engineered yeast can cut transportation-related carbon emissions since brewers no longer need to order hops from across the country. It also eases demand on already taxed hops farms that might not have enough time to regenerate the soil.
But even with these perks, some operators may have reservations about turning to products that are more processed (as with the beer concentrates) or genetically modified, as with the yeast. The craft movement, after all, has emphasized simplicity and a return to basics.
Scott Janish, who founded Sapwood Cellars Brewery in Columbia, Maryland, uses a strain of Omega’s engineered yeast in some of the brand’s beers and says, if anything, brewers and consumers alike are more excited than worried by these new approaches to beer-making.
“We’ve done a handful of these beers and have been very open and transparent about what yeast is going in and that it’s an engineered strain,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve had a single complaint from anyone that’s purchased them.”
Janish also points out that the use of not-so-common ingredients, like lactose, which when used in beer, creates a creamy mouthfeel, have been embraced by producer and consumer alike.
Instead, he thinks the bigger challenge will be figuring out how to categorize these new brews. Some of the flavors derived from the modified yeast are unconventional and don’t fall into categories like ales, lagers, porters, etc.
But for Janish, that challenge also breeds opportunity.
“I think it’s an exciting new area for beers, and the potential for these strains is huge,” he says. “I’m excited to see where this new technology takes us, incorporating crazy flavors that you just cannot achieve without them.”