With all this talk lately about an impending pork shortage (though it’s emphasized as a “bacon shortage” to get people’s attention – which really seems to work!), it got me thinking, could there ever be a Worldwide beer shortage? I sure hope not, but let’s take a look.
The pork shortage, we’re told, is looming due to the rising cost of pig feed due to “the global failure of maize and soya harvests.” This has led to a decline, Worldwide, in pig herds which, in turn, leads to higher pork prices for consumers. In fact, the price of pork has doubled in the U.S. since 2006 and it’s expected to climb even higher as the pork shortage worsens.
So what are the agricultural and economic factors that could cause the same type of shortage and price explosion in the craft beer industry? Let’s start by looking at beer’s main ingredients:
Beer is made with malt. Grains are converted into sugars, which are then consumed by colonies of yeast cells to produce alcohol. That, in a somewhat over-simplified form, is basically what’s happening when beer is made. Most beer is made from barley malt but, depending on the style of the beer, the malt component can also be comprised partially or entirely of wheat, corn, rice or even sorghum (which is popular for making gluten-free beers). The necessity for some type of grain with which to make beer is behind one theory of why, centuries ago, humans stopped being hunter/gatherers and started moving towards an agrarian society (agriculturally based). They needed to farm grain with which to make beer.
Other than water, malt is the single largest component necessary for making beer. Even for lighter beers, several pounds of grain are necessary for even just a small, 5 gallon batch. So, if there were some type of catastrophe that wiped out mankind’s ability to cultivate grain, our ability to produce beer could be in jeopardy. Any number of natural disasters could cause this scenario. Prolonged droughts or heat waves are the most likely possibilities, but they would have to be extreme and Worldwide to have any significant impact on our basic ability to cultivate grains for malt. Other problems could include:
Barley diseases and pests:
Yellow dwarf virus, an aphid-transmitted virus, attacks barley at the seedling stage, and damages older grain. However, this virus is not very common. Hopefully it will stay that way.
Fungus diseases of barley:
Fungus diseases do bother barley, especially in humid parts of the South. Resistant varieties have been developed, so the best thing is for farmers to grow the more fungus-resistant varieties to help avoid this problem.
Insect pests that attack barley:
Greenbugs and corn leaf aphids both attack barley, but infestations are usually not severe. Even commercial growers do not use chemicals, but rely instead on natural predators for organic insect control. Hopefully, those pests who do attack barley won’t get out of control and facilitate the need for stronger pest control measures. For now, however, it doesn’t seem like our barley crops are in any immediate danger from any major pest or disease infestation.
There doesn’t appear to be any current problem or major threat to the cultivation of barley or other grains used in brewing. So, on the malt front, I think we’re pretty safe. An explosion in barley or other grain prices could certainly have an effect on the cost of our beers, but that doesn’t seem like it will be happening any time soon.
When you put your nose up to a nice IPA, what do you smell? Depending on the type of hops used, you could smell things like grapefruit, lemon pineapple or other fruits, pine-like, grassy or floral aromas, etc. The wide variety of hops available to brewers allow them to craft the aroma and taste of their beers towards these types of aroma/flavor profiles, depending on what style or particular flavor the brewer is going for. Hops are a crucial part of many different styles of beer and you would find many beers quite bland an unappealing without the addition of some type of hops.
Beyond imparting aroma and flavor to beers, hops are also a natural preservative. In fact, India Pale Ale (IPA) originated due to the need to have the pale ales brewed in Brittan reach their troops in India without spoiling on the long journey. The solution was to add more hops to the beer, thereby preserving the beer and it’s flavor.
As with malt, hops are an agricultural product. So, again, there would have to be some type of natural disaster or pest infestation that would hinder our ability to successfully cultivate hops. Hopefully, if this did ever occur, it wouldn’t be a pest or disease that attacked every variety of hops – thereby leaving us at least some options. Aphids, spider mites and Japanese beetles are all known hop pests, but they can usually be controlled without resorting to chemical pesticides (and must be in the case of organically grown hops). In some areas caterpillars can also be a problematic hop pest. No pet infestation yet, however, has been known to cause a serious hop shortage or cultivation issue.
There was a minor panic surrounding a hop “shortage” around 2010/2011. This shortage was pirmarily caused by three factors:
Over the last 15+ years, overall hop acreage has declined Worldwide by 50%. This was due to a global hop glut that started in the early 1990’s, during which the excess hops were stored as hop extract that only recently ran out as acreage declined. This trend looks to be reversing slowly though, as the increasing number of craft breweries Worldwide has increased the demand for hops and hop farming.
Some years of bad weather in Europe reduced the yield of many European varieties a great deal causing a shortage of certain European hop varieties. Let’s hope the weather improves and doesn’t make this situation any worse.
Dealing With The ‘Big Boys’:
Many large, commercial breweries have contracts with hop growers to obtain their annual supply of hops. Since they are under contractual obligation to meet the demands of these larger brewers, hop growers wind up with fewer hops ‘left over’ for the craft beer and homebrew markets, leaving the ‘smaller guys’ to deal with the shortage. For craft breweries, good planning and ordering their hops early in the season are key, especially with the recent popularity of fresh hop beers, which require a large amount of freshly picked hops to make.
The Worldwide demand for hops of every variety for various beer styles seems to be the largest concern today with regards to availability of beer ingredients. Brewers have no current shortages of malt, water or yeast, but they do sometimes face hop shortages when suppliers run out of certain varieties. This could require some craft breweries and homebrewers to change their plans regarding what beer(s) they had planned to brew if a required hop is not available. So far this hasn’t been too big of an issue. Let’s jut hope it stays that way.
Water is, of course, the primary ingredient in beer. Without water, there would be no beer. Then again, without water there is no life period. But would life really be worth living without beer?
The only factors we really need to consider here are shortage or contamination. Do we have enough water? The majority of the surface of our planet is covered by water, but most of that is salt water which, of course, cannot be used to brew beer. While different World regions do suffer occasional periods of drought, we have never had a Worldwide water shortage to the point where beer production has been seriously threatened. Likewise, we have never experienced any Global catastrophe that contaminated the entire World’s water supply to the point of making it undrinkable or unusable.
As the World’s population increases, so do the demands on the Global water supply. Will we ever run out? Let’s hope not. We need to continue to use water wisely and to reclaim and recycle water whenever possible. In the future, we may need to look more towards improving and increasing the capacity of desalinization technology in order to make sea water drinkable and useable for watering our crops and for brewing our beer. At the moment, however, we appear to have a sufficient water supply with which to brew one of mankind’s favorite beverages.
The smallest ingredient in beer but probably the most important, yeast is the magical little microorganism which consumes sugar and oxygen and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Without yeast, beer would be nothing more than hoppy sugar water with no alcohol. That’s no fun. Thankfull we do have yeast to perform the miracle of fermentation for us.
According to the original Reinheitsgebot (The “German Beer Purity Law” or “Bavarian Purity Law”) first enacted in the year 1516, beer was to be made only from water, barley and hops. It wasn’t until the 1800’s when Louis Pasteur discovered the role of yeast in the process of fermentation that the law was amended to include yeast as an ingredient. Since that time, mankind’s understanding of yeast has grown dramatically. Both professional and homebrewers alike have a wide variety of different yeast strains they can utilize to brew. Each yeast strain has it’s own characteristics regarding attenuation (a measure of how effective a particular yeast is at conversing sugar to alcohol), tolerance (how high an alcohol percentage a particular yeast is capable of producing) and various aroma and flavor characteristics. Selecting the proper yeast strain can have a huge influence on the aroma, flavor, strength and overall character of the finished beer.
With such a huge library of different yeast strains available and the ease with which we can store and propagate these various strains, a yeast shortage doesn’t seem like a likely possibility within the foreseeable future. Yeast is everywhere in our World. In fact, early brewers didn’t even know they were using it. Wild, airborne yeast would float down into their open fermentation vessels, and perform what early man saw as magic – as a miracle. Today we know the science behind the miracle, but I still find it pretty amazing.
After looking at all of these factors, it doesn’t appear we’re in any immediate danger of a Worldwide beer shortage. We have abundant supplies of malted grains, a sufficient supply of hops (though let’s hope the shortages brewers have been experiencing with some of the more popular varieties will be a short-lived issue), plenty of fresh water and no problem at all with propagating enough yeast to meet demand. That’s a good thing, especially with the ever increasing number of craft breweries opening across the U.S. and around the World.
Next year, as the pork shortage hits, that pulled pork sandwich or bacon-wrapped steak you order with your beer may cost you a bit more. But, for now, it looks like you’ll have no problem finding plenty of beer to enjoy it with. Cheers!
Drink responsibly and stay safe out there.