Is Drought A Threat To Our Beer?

Humans have been drinking some sort of beer for 12,000 years, with the earliest written recipes dating to 9,000 years ago in China. Brian Hayden and colleagues at Simon Fraser University in Canada recently provided new support to a theory stipulating that grains were grown to brew beer even before grains were grown to be made into bread. Beer is how we as humans were able transport water and food great distances, and how we kept those essentials goods for longer periods of time. With the downfall of Rome and the onset of the Medieval Ages, some sort of ethanol (alcohol) was constantly used to sanitize water.

Rome prided itself on its clean flowing water brought in via aqueduct. When Rome fell to the Visigoths in 410 A.D., the aqueducts fell into disrepair and eventual non-use. From that point on Europe was faced with the problem of how to get clean water. In fact, the water so so dirty it was viewed as dangerous to the health of the general peasantry. So Medieval Europeans started drinking mead or ale, which are types of beer typically made of honey, water and yeast. The ethanol content in mead killed the bacteria that caused diseases like cholera and typhoid. In concentrations as low as 2 percent, ethanol can sanitize water of the worst bacterium. Beer also gave rise to the world’s first food law in Bavaria, known today as Germany. The 1561 law was called Reinheitsgebot. The law stipulated that only three ingredients at the time were allowed to be used to make beer: water, barley or wheat, and hops. Yeast was later added when it was scientifically discovered. We as a civilization, as well as modern food laws, owe our survival at least in part to beer and its ability to purify water.

Today, something is threatening our beer and transversely our society, specifically risking craft beers in the Southwest: drought. The Colorado River basin is in horrible shape, with a recent NASA study confirming that we have not only depleted the river system but have also drained its groundwater some 17 trillion gallons — or two and a half times the volume of Lake Mead at its full capacity. The way this drought crisis and these water problems affect the craft beer industry is huge in economic terms. Craft brewers that get their water from the Colorado River will face increased cost of production from the needed input of water. A Los Angeles Times article reported that, “California is home to more than 400 craft brewers — the most in the country. They sold $4.7 billion worth of beer in 2012, about 17 percent of the state’s total beer sales, according to the most recent statistics from the California Craft Brewers Association.”

In the past few weeks, I have written often about the drought and how it affects the Southwest. This drought affects a lot more than just our survival — it will also affect how we relax and whether or not we reach for a cool one.


 (Image Credit to Dan Love/Flickr)