Not only do droughts brought on by climate change reduce barley production, they also change the makeup of the grains themselves. Both those things are problems for beer making. The first reduces supplies critical to the brewing process, and the second affects the fermentation process which alters the beer’s taste. Now scientists worldwide are figuring out how they can keep barley production up and help the grain deal with hotter temperatures by figuring out how to add new traits to the grain, and looking at old cultivars to find traits that will enable barley to survive in changing climates.
Is this a serious problem?
Actually, yes, and it’s not just about the beer. Barley is the fourth most grown grain, and some experts link the drought in Syria and the resulting barley crash with the ongoing political strife in the country. While we don’t know if the current droughts in California, Australia, Russia and Syria are a result of climate change, scientists modeling these thing predict that droughts will become much more common on some parts of the planet. The solutions that scientists are finding for barley will also be useful when it comes to drought proofing wheat.
Australian scientists are looking at incorporating “stay-green” genes into barley from cultivars of sorghum. Until recently we had bred away from these “stay-green” traits in favor of greater production. However, these genes help plants thrive in drought while maintaining starch levels in grains. (The starches are something that brewers work with during the fermentation process.) If you’re faced with growing grain in a hot, dry region, and you’d like to brew a little beer too, this is what you’re looking for.
German’s call beer “liquid bread” and requirements for creating a quality brew were legalized in 1516 with the Reinheitsgebot (Purity Law). The law requires that German beer be brewed with barley, and it has to be high quality barley too. So it makes sense that German scientists are working on the problem. The video below describes the issues with a decreasing barley harvest and how scientists are studying older barley cultivars to find varieties that will do better in hotter, drier times.
The Moral of the Story?
There are two things we can take from this. First, we’re all wrapped up in the web of life, and whatever string you pull creates a change somewhere else. Second, people are very adaptable and creative. Even if we can’t agree on the cause of climate change or how to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, at least we can figure out how to improve our chances of making it.