Glacier Retreat Poses Threat to Beer Production

From the southeast to the Pacific Northwest, America has been swept up in the craft beer craze. According to the Washington Beer Commission, Washington State alone is home to 420 breweries. A recent report produced by the University of Washington described the impacts of climate change on Washington State’s cryosphere––or frozen landscapes. The study highlighted the glacier retreat experienced by the state’s Cascade Mountain Range, whose glaciers feed the Yakima River. The river flows into the Yakima Valley, irrigating vast agricultural lands, including 77 percent of hops grown in the US.

The Yakima Valley is described by many as a beautiful oasis in Washington. Sunnier than the rest of the state, it receives an average 300 days of sunshine each year. Agriculture is the predominant land use in the valley, yielding hops, mint, vegetables, grapes used for wine production and more. But the valley’s climate is that of a semi-arid desert, making water sources for its flourishing agricultural sector all the more precious.

Aerial photograph of Yakima Valley, Washington (Source: Wiki Commons/Flickr upload bot)

The Yakima River originates at Keechelus, a glacial lake, and flows down to the Columbia River, contributing to other rivers and tributaries along the way. However, the glaciers that contribute to this important freshwater source are disappearing. The report that came from the University of Washington reviewed the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere to summarize its implications for Washington State. Researchers found that between 1900 and 2009, 56 percent of glacier area in the Cascade Range disappeared. In a 60-year period, spring snowpack in the state has been reduced by 30 percent.

Glacier in the Cascade Range circa 1900 (Source: Wiki Commons/BMacZeroBot)
Queest-Alb Glacier in the Cascade Range, 1998 (Source: Wiki Commons/Ron Clausen)

The implications of glacier retreat and loss of mountain snowpack include impacts to recreation, reduction of water resources, irrigated agriculture and hydropower production. These changes, including warmer winters and decreased snowfall, are also shifting the arrival of peak streamflow. Altering the timing of peak streamflow increases the likelihood of flooding during winter, while decreasing streamflow during the spring and summer months. Reduced water during these seasons would hinder farmers’ ability to grow hops in the Yakima Valley. This is particularly true as demand for irrigation is greater during warmer months and when plants are at the peak of their growing season. 

The hops grown in the Yakima Valley are not only used to produce American-made craft beers, but over half of those grown are exported to other countries. As of 2016, the value of hop crops in Washington totaled $380 million.

The issue of climate change affecting hops production in Washington State does not simply threaten the ability for consumers to have an ice-cold beer in their hand during a hot summer––it threatens livelihoods and the economy. Since Washington contributes significantly to the global supply of hops, the economic effects of reduced hops production would be felt globally. Both hops farmers and beer producers would experience a significant loss from reduced irrigation––and they wouldn’t be the only ones. Wineries in the area would suffer, as would livestock producers and other farmers. Glacier retreat in the Cascades especially threatens the agriculture-dominated economy of the Yakima River Valley. 

Redhook Brewery, an Oregon run company with operations in Seattle, Washington (Source: Wiki Commons/DJC1970)

GlacierHub addressed the potential for climate change to interfere in beer production in an article published in 2018. The story highlighted a climate declaration signed by American beer companies including Sierra Nevada, New Belgium Brewing and many more. With this declaration, “these breweries are showing their leadership and commitment to brewing with the climate in mind.” Among the concerns recognized by these climate conscious breweries is their diminishing water resources. In order to become more sustainable, “they are finding economic opportunity through investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency, water efficiency, waste recapture, and sustainable sourcing.”

For the love of beer, connoisseurs of the craft would be wise to grab an oar––not just for mixing malted hops and barley––but in the upstream paddle for action on the climate crisis.

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Glacier Tanks: An Ode to Mount Hood

Glaciers connote feelings of jagged cold, adventure, and size on an order of magnitude the human mind can hardly grasp. Over the years, many brands from Gatorade to mint candy companies have drawn on the positive associations evoked by glaciers to market their products. So when a beer equipment manufacturer set up shop in the shadow of Oregon’s glaciated Mount Hood, the name for their operation was right in front of them.

Image result for mount hood
Mount Hood, the 11,249-foot “Queen of the Cascades,” with downtown Portland in the foreground (Source: Flickr).

 

Glacier Tanks was established in Portland in 2006, less than 50 miles west of Mount Hood. It is a small, family-owned company with fewer than twenty employees. Staff members sport fleeces with the Glacier Tanks logo, a silhouette of Mount Hood with blue caricatured glaciers. The owners are Portland lifers, although their operation, which produces brewing tanks, has since outgrown its original confines and moved across the river to Vancouver, Washington. They get together with friend-breweries and compete in beer camaraderie like “Brewfit games,” which include events like the cask carry and beer chugging.

GlacierHub caught up with Nick Roelle, the company’s 39-year-old CEO, who is a snowboarder and outdoorsman. He confirmed the Glacier Tanks’ namesake is “an ode to Mount Hood” and to his youth, which he spent exploring glaciers in Alaska.

Former Glacier Tanks employee, Matt Fields, boulders at Alaska’s Byron Glacier trailhead (Source: Matt Fields).

 

Twelve named glaciers and snowfields flank Mount Hood, which is a slumbering volcano and Oregon’s tallest peak. Iconic among Portlanders, the mountain is revered for both its beauty and mystique— there is no established path to the top. Its 7,000 feet of glacial cave passages comprise the longest system in the continental U.S.

Portland and the Pacific Northwest are informally recognized as the craft-brew capital of the world. A bit farther east, the Cascade Range casts a rain shadow over a vast, dry, elevated plateau. It is a sun-drenched region, which receives hydration year-round from a healthy mountain snowpack. These are ideal hop-growing conditions, a primary ingredient for making good beer. The region produced 99 percent of U.S. grown hops in 2017.

A barrel converted into an upright fermentor (Source: Instagram).

However, climate change forecasts predict a warmer, drier, less hoppy Pacific Northwest, which is bad news for beer makers. But Glacier Tanks, a company that got its start making rainwater storage tanks, is accustomed to adapting quickly. They also create equipment for brewing kombucha, coffee, wine, and tool custom products specialized for other niche productions. Their clients include the Boston Beer Company (the maker of Samuel Adams), Backwoods Brewing, and Humm Kombucha.

In 2015, some of the most recognizable names in American beer-making signed on to a climate declaration for greater integration of sustainability practices into their brewing. The declaration reads: “Warmer temperatures and extreme weather events are harming the production of hops, a critical ingredient of beer that grows primarily in the Pacific Northwest. Rising demand and lower yields have driven the price of hops up by more than 250 percent over the past decade. Clean water resources, another key ingredient, are also becoming scarcer in the West as a result of climate-related droughts and reduced snowpack.”

Glacier Tanks employees with Mount Hood’s iconic silhouette (Source: Instagram).

Levi Drake, the Glacier Tanks operations manager, studied stream ecology at the University of Illinois. He is aware of the climate prediction for their hop-growing region. According to Drake, who is also responsible for Glacier Tanks’ research and design, there is nothing glacial about the pace of the company’s adaptability. They are currently in the process of redesigning kettles for better heat retention and efficiency. The pursuit of sustainable systems is a theme of the Portland region, and will continue to drive brewery innovation, especially in the Pacific Northwest.