Quality and price of Czech beer threatened by climate change

Czechs are the world’s most prolific beer drinkers and their various brews are highly sought after in markets across the globe. But a joint study conducted by universities in the UK, US and China suggests that the production of “liquid bread”, as the Czechs call their favourite drink, may in fact be under threat.

At the centre of the problem lie the effects of climate change on the growing of barley, beer’s key ingredient, says Dabo Guan, a climate change economist at University College London who is one of the lead researchers involved in the study.

Ivan Tučník | Foto: Ondřej Vaňura,  Český rozhlas

"Barley only grows in relatively cold places: Eastern European countries, Canada and Russia are the main production areas. So once the climate models tell us where there is a possibility of heat stress in the future, we can see that most of the Eastern European countries would suffer large losses in barley production."

The vulnerability of the crop is also of great concern to brewing companies. For them, climate change is a major economic risk, says Ivan Tučník, who is in charge of sustainability at Czechia’s leading beer brand Pilsner Urquell.

"We are seeing an increase in volatility. What this means is that good years and bad years come one after the other. For example, in 2021 we had probably the best hop year ever, but last year’s harvest was one of the worst. This unpredictability is neither good for farmers nor for us as brewers".

Photo: Lenka Žižková,  Radio Prague International

To try and tackle this problem, Pilsner Urquell has developed the For Hops project, which uses precision agriculture to try and make yields more stable. In collaboration with Microsoft and other partners in the brewing industry, the project aims to develop software that will advise farmers on how to use the available resources more efficiently, says Pilsner Urquell’s sustainability lead.

Hop field | Photo: Ondřej Vaňura,  Czech Radio

"80% of hop farmers in the Žatec region, the largest in the Czech Republic, have no access to water. Their only option is to build basins, in which they collect water all year round. This means that they have a finite amount of water and have to be very careful when using it. That's where we come in, to show them the times of the year when irrigation has the greatest impact in terms of yield and quality."

The predictions are based on data that is collected from six pilot farms across Czechia. Each is examined through a complex system of cameras, sensors and weather stations. The information that For Hops has gathered at these facilities points to drought and weather instability as the main causes of crop disruption, which is very much in line with the study’s predictions.

Photo: Ondřej Vaňura,  Czech Radio

Adverse weather conditions are also making it harder for farmers to adhere to the strict requirements surrounding the cultivation of malting barley. Many of them therefore choose to focus on other crops instead, says Mr Tučník.

"That is why we are also looking for ways to support barley growers. We have seen that in the last three decades the total area on which malting barley was grown in Czechia has halved. This means that there is increasing pressure on the availability of barley."

Photo: Ondřej Vaňura,  Czech Radio

In their study, Guan and the other researchers talk about how this decline in production could create tensions on the market and eventually lead to a considerable increase in beer prices. The academic says this would be especially noticeable in countries where consumption is higher.

"For the Czech Republic, I remember that the increase would be five times higher. If we now have 50 cents per can or so, possibly the price would increase to 3 or 4 euros in case of extreme heat stress. So that would also compromise the drinking culture".

Ivan Tučník | Photo: Ondřej Vaňura,  Czech Radio

And it’s not just the price of beer that could become an issue but the taste of it too. Many Czech and international brewers rely on the Saaz strain of hops that is specifically grown in the Žatec region of Bohemia. But the strain has proven difficult to replicate in different climatic conditions.

"If there are no hops, there is no beer as we know it and as we all like it," Ivan Tučník warns.