While the liquid is being threatened by climate change, the culture of consumption is being challenged by changing lifestyles and soaring costs. Is our national habit of regularly reaching for a beer set to change for good? And what could replace it?
Once the full stop that marked the end of the working day – or let’s be honest, a lunchtime norm even as recently as the noughties – the pint was for a long time integral to British drinking culture. Nay, British life. There’s a reason every good (and bad) soap opera had its own pub and beer brand, which usually ended up sloshed over whoever had done the dirty that week. I wish my local was that entertaining.
But times have changed. According to Statista, beer consumption per capita in 2008 was 84 litres, or 148 pints per person. That plummeted to just 68 for 2021 (or 120 pints). The figure has been consistently dipping into the 60s from as long ago as 2012.
Despite the best efforts of a craft brewing scene that for a while held real excitement and recruited a new generation of consumers, Gen Z hasn’t really embraced beer – or drinking for that matter – in the same way their predecessors have.
This bit is depressing
Skirting over the legal drinking age for a moment, data from Drinkaware claims 26% of 16- to 24-year-olds are teetotal. More health and image conscious, just 30% of 16- 24-year-olds drink once a week compared to 58% of 55- 74-year-olds.
Rising costs have also made previous levels of consumption, pretty unaffordable. The price of the average pint of lager soared 12% in the past year from £4.09 to £4.57, reports the Office for National Statistics. Which actually feels pretty cheap if you live in London where the £8 pint is now a thing.
Reflecting their dwindling role in our lives, six pubs a day are currently closing, according to new CGA/NIQ data, with 44,000 closed for good over the past 20 years. With 99,916 licensed venues, we now have the lowest number since records began a decade ago.
Costs more, tastes worse
Just when you thought that was bad enough, a new study warns that climate change is threating to make our beers taste, in a word, crap. Hops in Europe are struggling in changing weather patterns reports the Czech Academy of Sciences (CAS) and Cambridge University, producing less flowers, and reducing the level of alpha bitter acids crucial to the taste of a pint. Hotter, longer, drier summers mean acids are slated to deplete by up to 31% by 2050. Which as well as being deeply concerning, means the price of good quality hops is set to rocket further.
Is the pint doomed? As my dad never said, there’s no point crying over flavourless hops. Brewers have already begun to look for solutions, particularly to climate change. In fact, we saw our first hopless brews back in 2018.
Scientists at UC Berkeley developed a brewing process without water-intensive hops, using engineered yeast strains to not only ferment, but flavour the beer. Lagunitas then made a brew with it, reporting “fruit loop and orange blossom” notes. That we’ve seen nothing come to market since tells you something. Whether yeast can recreate the delicate flavours of common British ale hops, like Fuggles and Golding, is also a big unanswered question. Could climate change mean we lose whole varietals of beer?
No water, no problem
In 2020, the Wild Beer Company set about brewing without water. Collaborating with Brewgooder, milk stout No Water, took two years in trials, using leftover whey from dairy production. As new technologies develop, expect to see more brewers attempting to offset the impact of the changing climate on their raw ingredients, and new styles emerging in the process. Whether any will be scalable, we’ll find out. There’s certainly a massive incentive to try. Price-wise, lower ABV beers, which command less taxation, may also be an answer, if producers can keep their taste profiles alluring.
Or maybe beer’s place in our repertoires is just fated to change. More expensive, and harder to produce to a consistently high standard, is it the industry’s job now to start the process of repositioning beer as a prestige, artisan drink, rather than the affordable, ‘fish and chips’ of the drinks world? As the number of craft producers continues to fall, ingredients become scarcer and more seasonal, it might in fact be time to make a selling point of the challenges facing the industry, rather than trying to hide them.
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