Climate change has beer over a barrel

The future of South Africa’s hops industry is in serious trouble. The country’s 13 commercial hop farms are already working in marginal land and are faced with decreased rainfall and an uncertain future. Without its golden produce – grown on the slopes of the Outeniqua Mountains outside George in the southern Cape – the bitter smack will be lost from the nation’s beer.

The local variant of hops is already adapted to the local climate. It survives off 700mm rainfall a year, compared with the 1 000mm it traditionally requires. This adaptation came in the 1980s, when the apartheid government declared the crop of “strategic importance” and pushed for 100% local production. 

But writing in the African Journal of Agricultural Research this year, local scientists say climate change will change the water cycle to such an extent that hops will struggle to grow.

In the article “Climate change impacts on South African hop producer prices”, they write that the price will need to go up by R1.30 a kilogram to “offset the climate-induced water-related risk on hop cultivation”.

This is still a relatively good scenario. A joint project by South African Breweries and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) last year found that the industry contributes R55-million a year to the economy. A 0.8°C increase in temperature this century – the probable change as modelled by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research – will force farms to use 145-million cubic litres more water for irrigation at a cost of R1.5-million a year – but only if the spread of invasive alien plant species is controlled.


Alien impact
The WWF’s Christine Colvin – one of the researchers – says rapid changes in climate will favour alien species, as local plants cannot adapt fast enough. Uncontrolled, aliens will suck up 40% of the annual run-off in the catchments used by hop farmers. This will add R5.4-million to costs, as farmers will have to turn to groundwater for irrigation, she says. To prevent this, the research said R39-million was needed over a 10-year period to remove the alien trees.

For microbrewers, the problem of supply will become acute. Stuart Thompson, founding brewer of Loxton Lager in Johannesburg, says the industry could be broken by climate change. “This is a game changer for us. It’s already hard enough to source good hops and compete economically with the big players.”

Brewers are working closely with farmers to secure supply by dramatically reducing water use and trying to breed hardier hop variants, he says. In his case he was moving towards using local ingredients – such as buchu – in his beer. This has the added bonus of enhancing the taste, he says. “It is a proudly African beer because we are adding in all these tastes that come from here, rather than focusing on something like hops which is from up north.”

This means his operation is less threatened by the stresses faced by the hops industry. But he has the same problems with his local ingredients, as they are also susceptible to a changing climate, he says. “People see climate change as some faraway problem that will affect the future; that will change if they can’t drink their favourite beer.”

The concern has been echoed worldwide, with the price of hops increasing by 250% in the past decade. The world’s largest brewers have signed the Brewery Climate Declaration, which holds them to measures that will lower their carbon emissions and make them better able to adapt to change.

It warns: “Warmer temperatures and extreme weather events are harming the production of hops, a critical ingredient of beer.”

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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