This Unappealing Beer Offers a Taste of Climate Change

New Belgium's Torched Earth Ale is the future of beer in an overheating world.

pints of beer

Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt

When you take a sip of Torched Earth Ale, made by New Belgium Brewing Co., you may be tempted to spit it out in disgust. The limited-edition ale was created for Earth Day this year to illustrate what beer will taste like in a world that has undergone severe climate change. Brewed from drought-resistant grains, dandelion weeds, and smoke-tainted water, it's a shocking reminder of what we stand to lose if we fail to take action to slow planetary warming.

Beer production relies on a number of ingredients that are sensitive to environmental change. New Belgium explained that barley is "especially susceptible to the combination of heat and drought stress, which can decrease its seed yield up to 95%." Three-quarters of American barley comes from just four states—Montana, North Dakota, Idaho, Washington—making it susceptible to crop failures induced by erratic weathering patterns. 

Going forward, there's a good chance that "barley grown for commodities such as cattle feed will be prioritized over malting barley used for luxury goods" (such as beer) when climate unpredictability has reduced production. 

The brewer goes on to explain how hops—another crucial ingredient—is vulnerable to climate change: 

"Hop cone yield also decreases significantly under drought conditions because hops have varying levels of heat tolerance. By the end of century, the Pacific Northwest, the premiere hop region in the US, is anticipated to have 15-20% less precipitation. In the typically hop-prolific Yakima Valley, unusual increases in heat wave frequencies are already causing insecure hop yields."

Torched Earth Ale uses a shelf-stable hops extract rather than fresh hops to show exactly what those crop losses would taste like.

Water is also irreplaceable in beer-making. The company notes: "Most of the water used to brew beer comes from snowmelt accumulated throughout the winter, which turns into river runoff. These rivers supply barley and hop growing regions in addition to thousands of breweries. As climate change drastically alters and gradually reduces snowpack, it causes a tumultuous cycle of flooding, followed by water shortages." 

Smoked malt was added to Torched Earth's water to give a smoky flavor reminiscent of the wildfires that ravaged California last year. These same fires were experienced firsthand by artist Kelly Malka of Los Angeles, who was hired to design the beer's apocalyptic-looking label. A first-generation Moroccan immigrant to the United States, Malka is familiar with "the devastating direct impacts of climate change, including worsening wildfires and air pollution, in her own community." 

While Torched Earth Ale is hardly stuff you'll be lining up to drink, it makes a powerful statement—one that New Belgium's CEO Steve Fechheimer hopes will spur other companies to create climate action plans. In a parallel initiative called Drink Sustainably, New Belgium calls on the 70% of Fortune 500 companies that "still do not have meaningful plans to address climate change by 2030—the year scientists say that climate change could be irreversible." 

Fechheimer wrote in a statement: "As a CEO operating in a world already facing destabilizing climate impacts, it amazes me that so many companies haven’t planned for a future that is already here. This lack of real commitment goes beyond greenwashing (almost every company talks a big game about sustainability). It presents a direct and perilous threat to the world’s most valuable companies and their shareholders—not to mention the rest of us."

While many companies were talking about climate issues in 2019 and 2020, these discussions took a backseat once the coronavirus pandemic hit, but the problem has not gone away. 

"While the economic crisis driven by the current pandemic has devastated families and businesses, it pales in comparison to the economic pain that will be wrought by an unmitigated failure to address climate change," Fechheimer pointed out. "In the year 2021, if you don’t have a climate plan, you don’t have a business plan."

handful of hops
A handful of hops.

Getty Images/Mint Images

His company certainly walks its own talk. A certified B-corporation, the Colorado-based brewery launched the first certified carbon-neutral beer in the United States called Fat Tire. To mark the occasion, it had a 24-hour stunt sale of $100 six-packs, meant to illustrate rising costs linked to climate change.

Fast Company reported that, since 1991, "the company has become the first wind-powered brewery, producing its own electricity on-site through solar and biogas technology, as well as advocating for climate change action alongside groups such as Protect Our Winters."

Every industry is different, but the point is that there are always changes that can be made to reduce one's environmental impact if that is a top priority. Fechheimer hopes more companies get on board with this attitude. "We know that as a medium-sized company, we can only have a medium-sized impact. We need more of the big guys to step up too," he said.

Who knows, maybe a mouthful of Torched Earth Ale will be a sufficiently powerful incentive to kick many of these big-name companies into action. After all, a world without great beer is a rather sad place to inhabit.