Nearly 100 years ago, speakeasies were where Americans would find black-market alcohol at a time when the US had decided to go dry.
They were the shebeens of their day.
But black-market alcohol might be a thing of the future if climate change causes the price of beer to spiral out of control.
The price of a brewski will increase dramatically, according to new research, and it is going to come at a time when humankind will be thirsty as it faces killer heatwaves.
“If you think what happened in the US in the 1920s with the Prohibition era it was caused by different things, but the consequences were the same,” says Dabo Guan, professor of climate change economics at the University of East Anglia’s School of International Development. “One was a man-made error and the other will be caused by God.”
These acts of God will be droughts and heatwaves — climate change believers say this will ultimately be from the hand of man.
Guan and an international team of scientists have released a first-of-its-kind study into how severe climate events will cause shortages in the world’s beer supply. It makes for scary reading. In some countries, beer prices won’t just double: Climate change could push up the cost of a can of lager by six- or seven-fold.
What Guan and his colleagues did was look at barley crop production to get a handle on how climate change might effect beer prices and consumption. Barley is a main ingredient in beer, and is easier to model than other beer staples such as hops.
The idea for the study, Guan admits, came about while he and his friends were having a couple of cold ones in Beijing, China.
“We were talking about climate change and food and then we thought no one has done anything on alcoholic drinks. And we thought which one should we look at and as we all like beer…” said Guan.
There is a serious side to the study. The researchers had noticed that climate change was seen as a poor person’s problem that would have an impact on food security in developing countries.
By highlighting the effect on beer, they believed it would show how global warming would impact developed countries and luxury goods such as chocolate, coffee and beer.
In a worst-case scenario where temperatures increased by four to six degrees Celcius the researchers found a country like Ireland would see beer prices double in the supermarket from $2.50 to $5.00.
Other countries will fare far worse.
“In Poland, Estonia and the Czech Republic relative price changes are going to be huge. From US 70c right now from the supermarket to $3.50 a bottle,” says Guan.
South Africa will have it bad too. The worst-case scenario has beer prices increasing by 80%.
With price increases will come reduced consumption. Their research suggests that global beer consumption will fall by 16%. Some traditional beer-drinking countries will be particularly hard hit. Germany and UK beer drinking could fall by a third.
Drinking less beer might be a good thing, some might say, but this beverage has been with us probably from the dawn of the agricultural revolution. It is ingrained in some cultures.
“Beer is an important tool for social entertainment and even stability,” explains Guan.
But in a climate change-affected world the quest for a cheap beer might require dealing with the future’s equivalent of Al Capone. Illegally brewed black market beer might become the lager lout’s option for a cheap pint.
South African beer expert and author Lucy Corne points out that illegally made alcohol can be dangerous. In Mozambique several years ago, party-goers died when they drank home-brewed beer that had been fortified with something toxic. Already, Corne says, the local craft industry is under strain because of price constraints and competition from international beer companies now importing their own craft beers.
This comes as South Africa, like many other parts of the world, has experienced a recent craft beer revolution which has offered a tasty alternative to the mass-produced lagers that the giants of the brewing industry have flooded the markets with.
Smaller craft beer producers would be harder hit by climate change.
“It would be sad if we had to use genetics or chemicals to make beer taste like beer because the ingredients are too expensive. It would definitely be kind of sad,” says Corne. DM
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