Hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists were in Denver this week for a major international conference called Climate Research in Service to Society. As a Colorado company already affected by climate change – and one that has a social mission too – we toast their work and hope their insights help us get a handle on climate change.
New Belgium Brewing Co. is one of thousands of businesses already feeling the effects of climate change and trying to plan for an uncertain future. In particular, we worry about weather patterns that make our raw materials less plentiful and more expensive. Scientists tell us we cannot blame any one particular severe weather event on climate change. But they also say the kind of brutal weather we’ve been seeing this year- devastating heat waves, wildfires, killer tornadoes and once-in-a-lifetime floods-will be increasingly common in a warming world.
That is a big deal for us at New Belgium. We need a steady and sustainable supply of quality raw ingredients. And our supply chain – including barley, hops and water – is especially vulnerable to weather in the short-term and to climate change in the long-term.
We last felt the pinch in 2008, in the wake of a record low hops shortage. Then just last month, one trade publication, Craft Business Daily, alerted our industry to low barley harvests – in terms of both quality and quantity – from Western Europe to Australia. Drought and flooding are partly to blame for the disappointing harvest. And here in the United States, the USDA said it is possible fewer acres will be devoted to barley than any year since 1881. Because of these supply-chain impacts, we expect prices for malt – which is made from barley – to rise at least 20 percent.
And then there’s water, which is essential to our business and essential to everybody else, as well. Especially in the Western United States, where supply is dependent on snowpack melt and a limited number of key rivers, water is scarce and climate matters. Scientists tell us that drought is nothing new in our part of the world, but with a changing climate, more severe droughts are expected. And we have more people living in Colorado now than in decades past. More people plus less fresh water is a tricky equation to solve.
At New Belgium , we are conserving water where we can. Many beer companies use 5 gallons of water or more to make 1 gallon of beer; we use about 20 percent less to make Fat Tire Amber Ale and our other beers. We meter all uses of water in our brewery, and treat our wastewater onsite to lessen the load on public water services.
Especially in these difficult economic times, growing a business is not easy. There is always a temptation to put off improvements and investments until better times. But for our brewery, growth depends on abundant clean water and quality barley and hops – and climate change puts those ingredients at risk.
Jenn Orgolini is sustainability director for New Belgium Brewing Co., which the Brewers Association ranks as the third-largest craft brewing company in the United States. The company employs more than 300 Coloradans.