Some Aroma Hops Don’t Like Spring Heat. So Will a Warming Climate Change the Taste of Beer?

Will a warming climate mess with my IPA?  That all depends on hops.

Hops are the wondrous flowers that give beer both bitterness and aroma.  The teeming diversity of craft beer flavors comes in large part from hop varieties that  macro-brews mostly ignore.  The floral, spicy, and tropical fruit flavors often found in craft beer come from so-called aroma hops, whose varieties have names like Cascade, Mt. Hood, and Willamette.  As these names suggest, they’re grown mostly in the Pacific Northwest, especially in Washington, which accounts for around 75% percent of U.S. hop production.  Indeed several of the most common aroma hop varieties were bred to grow in the climate east of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon.

That climate is getting warmer.  According to data from NOAA Washington and Oregon are in the midst of record (or near record) warm streaks.  Could these changes affect hop production and subtly shift the taste of craft beer?

Extra warmth in the Pacific Northwest has not diminished the overall production of hops.  In fact hop growers there are booming.  They shipped 11% more hops in 2015 than the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, largely because more acres were planted.  And thanks to the craft beer boom, aroma hops are taking up an increasing fraction of the acreage, displacing the alpha hop varieties that are used more heavily in Budweiser, Miller Lite, and other macro brands.

But even as hop production has broadly increased, a few aroma varieties have taken a hit due to early-season warm weather.  Production of some early blooming hops have been declining for the last few years and were especially hammered in 2015, when the April to June temperatures were near 120 year record highs.

Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest last spring were near the highest since records have been kept. This affected early season hop varieties. Source: NOAA.

Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest last spring were near 121 year record highs.  This affected early season hop varieties.  Graphic Source: NOAA.

If this trends represents a new normal, certain aroma hops might become scarcer on the market and less prevalent in beer, while others varieties fill the void.  Jim Soleburg runs Indie Hops, a supplier of aroma hops in Portland, Oregon.  In an email he writes:

The 2015 growing season and harvest gave us a glimpse into what warmer temperatures might do in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  It’s only one year, but it was substantially warmer than any growing season on record… Most of the milder “continental” type varieties- such as Willamette, Liberty, Golding, Fuggle and others- were very late to emerge from the ground last spring.  The general consensus is that due to the warm winter we had, there was not sufficient “winter chill” for the plants to go through the dormancy phase in normal fashion, and thus they “didn’t know it was time to wake up and grow” until a full 6-7 weeks later than usual.  The rest of the growing season was spent playing catch up.  The warm weather then did help, but the plants lagged all the way until harvest time, and although they did ultimately produce cones with reasonably good brewing characteristics, yields… were quite low.

Some varieties clearly enjoyed the warmer weather.  Cascade, Centennial and Chinook for example had above average years in Oregon, both from a yield standpoint and from an aroma/flavor standpoint.

I also spoke with Ann George, executive director of Hop Growers of America.  She echoed Soleburg’s points and emphasized that it’s premature to conclude that that the recent decline in early season hop varieties represents a long term trend.  “Certainly there are on-going concerns about climate” among growers, she said.  Those concerns largely involve water access.  Most growers in the Pacific Northwest depend on the slow melting of mountain snow.  If more winter moisture lands as rain and snow melts more quickly during warmer springs then storage reservoirs and canals which supply hop growers may need substantial upgrades.

But back to my original question.  Will a warming climate affect the taste of beer?  In his email, Soleburg addressed this in true beer-nerd fashion:

Hard to say what this will do to aroma/flavor character, but we can be certain that it will be affected, for better or worse.  After all, one beer lover’s luscious, piney/resiny IPA is another’s cat piss!

Tyler Currie lives in Boulder, Colorado and writes about energy, innovation, and the environment at http://west.energy.  He can only manage to brew 5 gallons at a time.

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