Scene: The local liquor store.
You: Wearing a cloth mask and the hollow-eyed look of five straight months in lockdown. It’s Friday—and International Beer Day. You’ve loaded up on hand sanitizer and ventured out with your heart set on bringing home a few cases of liquid joy. (Which is what you’ve taken to calling beer recently. You make a note to talk to your therapist about this next week.)
And then you see something that makes you do a double take. Fat Tire costs how much? One hundred dollars? That can’t be right!
Narrator: It was right.
We interrupt all the totally terrible headlines to bring you yet more bad news: climate change is still happening, and it’s not going to be good for anyone who likes beer. Why? Because beer relies on agricultural goods such as barley and hops. And agriculture is likely to be severely impacted by longer droughts, stronger storms, and warmer overall temperatures. For International Beer Day, New Belgium Brewing is shocking us all out of our COVID-induced climate complacency by jacking up the price of its flagship ale to $100—what it estimates a six-pack will cost in 2070 due to climate change. (The calculation is based on a 2018 report published in the online journal Nature Plants.)
The price gouging is just for one day, and only in select markets. Also, if you actually ring up a six-pack, you’ll still be charged the normal price because, legally, beer companies cannot set prices for retailers. But the stunt is supposed to give you sticker shock in order to start a conversation—signage in stores, New Belgium says, will note the beer’s one-day price increase, advising customers that they’ll need to get used to it as the new normal if they don’t act.
The price increase is also part of a PR announcement that Fat Tire is now carbon-neutral. According to the company, its ubiquitous amber ale is the first nationally distributed beer to use no fossil fuels in the brewing process. By 2030, New Belgium hopes all of its beers will be carbon-neutral.
CEO Steve Fechheimer says that he hopes the $100 price tag will be jarring enough to make people want to act—in this case, to save our beer. Although being carbon-neutral has been in the works for years, and the $100 six-pack idea predates the pandemic, Fechheimer says the current crisis in this country has made the company’s campaign feel more relevant than ever. “We’re in the middle of a huge disruption. The pandemic has been a huge change to how we all live our lives. But we believe that climate change more broadly is going to bring much bigger economic pain,” he says. The difference, of course, is that climate change is the slow boiling of the frog. Fechheimer says he hopes that seeing exorbitant six-packs will be the visual cue many of us need to get up and out of that ever warming water.
He also acknowledges that while putting solar panels on a brewery is a good start, it’s not the broad, systemic reform we’re going to need to fight climate change worldwide. Action from individuals and private companies alone can’t save us. It’s great to drink carbon-neutral beer, but we need sweeping legislative changes to halt climate change. New Belgium says that it’s involved in lobbying efforts with Protect Our Winters, and while its new website, DrinkSustainably.com, provides ideas for how to get involved with combating climate change, it’s frustratingly neutral. It just suggests voting—without calling out the politicians who have refused to move the needle on this issue or lauding those who have.
Breweries are already feeling the effects of climate change. In the past few years, New Belgium has dealt with freezes hitting citrus groves, driving up prices for crops like grapefruit. It’s also dealt with flooded-out barley fields and hops ruined by hail.
Gayle Goschie, a fourth-generation hop farmer in Oregon, can personally attest to the changes she’s seeing on her land. One difference she’s noted in recent years is that winters are no longer as cold. “The accumulation of days below freezing is not the same as it was 10 or 15 years ago,” and that confuses overwintering bines, she says (hops grow on bines, not vines). When spring arrives, some varieties can be slow out of the gate. “It’s almost like they haven’t had a good sleep,” she explains. That means a lower hop yield on harvesting day.
When you purhcase ingredients in the quantities that New Belgium does, small changes in cost become big budget problems. Fechheimer says that often he hears smaller companies complaining that they can’t afford to go green, or that legislation like the Green New Deal is too expensive. “The thing I always stress is that climate change is going to most impact small- and medium-size businesses,” he says. That’s because the company that buys 100,000 cases of oranges pays more per case than the one buying one million cases. Furthermore, the smaller company is also less likely to have big cash reserves on hand to cover those increased ingredient costs.
With its purchase last year by Lion Little World Beverages, which is part of food and beverage conglomerate Kirin, New Belgium certainly has more resources than many small brewers to weather the economic uncertainties of climate change. But that really isn’t what Fechheimer worries about at night. In fact, he’s not even worried about the price of beer. Instead, he fears that low-income Americans might struggle to buy basic groceries in 2070. If beer costs $100 per six-pack, what will everything else cost?
We don’t yet know the answer to that question. But what we do know from living through the current global crisis is that we all need to think about how we can work together to avert the next one.