Carlsberg’s new lager is made for a warming world

LONDON – Mr Zoran Gojkovic holds up a glass of golden, foam-topped lager against the light before taking a long, slow draught. “The main flavour is crispness,” says the master brewer for Carlsberg. “It has a slight malty note with a noble hop aroma.”

That description could fit hundreds of everyday lagers. What makes the experimental Carlsberg recipe distinctive is the use of a barley variety engineered to thrive under high heat and water stress – or to put it another way, a cool beer for a warm planet.

For a US$600 billion (S$789 billion) global brewing industry being assailed by climate change, such advances cannot happen fast enough. Barley yields are falling. Fresh water is harder to find. And good quality hops – the green flower that gives beer its bitter bite – are under threat from scorching heat waves.

Climate change is hitting most food and drink supply chains. At the current rate of global warming, average global crop yields for corn could fall 24 per cent by late this century, according to a 2022 report by Nasa.

Other research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017 concluded that without adaptation measures, each degree of higher temperature would, on average, reduce yields of wheat by 6 per cent, rice by 3.2 per cent, soybean by 3.1 per cent and corn by 7.4 per cent.

“Climate change is the most substantial challenge to food security in human history,” says Dr Cary Fowler, special envoy for global food security at the US Department of State. “Are domesticated crops adapted to climate change? It’s highly unlikely.”

Many companies are turning to technology to help them cope. In 2022, Bayer introduced a “short stature” corn designed to survive high winds. In 2021, Nestlé said it had developed “low-carbon” coffee varieties with up to 50 per cent higher yields. Argentina’s Bioceres Crop Solutions is awaiting government approval to cultivate drought-tolerant wheat in the US.

A warmer climate is particularly troublesome for beermakers because each of the three main ingredients – water, barley and hops – is affected. When subjected to even a few extra degrees of warmth, barley can make too much protein, too little alcohol and funky flavours.

Supply suffers, too. In Europe, the source of 60 per cent of the world’s barley, droughts and heat waves reduced production by 12.1 per cent from 1964 to 2015, according to a 2021 estimate published in Environmental Research Letters. Another study in the journal Nature Plants in 2018 indicated that warmer climes could lower global beer supply by up to 16 per cent and double its price in years when the effects of climate change are most extreme, based on scientists’ scenarios.

Carlsberg, which makes about 14 billion litres of beer through its 140 brands each year, is certainly feeling the heat. Of the company’s 84 majority-owned global breweries, 16 are in areas of high water stress, and several are “at high risk of barley sourcing,” says Mr Simon Boas Hoffmeyer, senior director of sustainability and ESG. The company gets most of its barley from western Europe and France in particular, an area that’s been hit by drought in recent years.

Carlsberg is investing millions of euros in genetics and other kinds of blue-sky research its rivals usually leave to academics. In doing so, the company wants to advance a legacy begun 147 years ago when its founder J.C. Jacobsen set up the world’s first industrial research lab in Copenhagen. It was at this facility where pure yeast was first cultured and the pH scale to measure acidity was invented. The basement freezers still hold a trove of 50,000 brewer yeast strains, including the very first, from 1883.

In 2017, Carlsberg published the barley genome, which is twice the size of a human’s. In August, it published a technique called Find-IT that rapidly identifies genetic traits that make a crop tolerant to high heat or drought. And Carlsberg says it will soon disclose the entire hops genome, which is five times as large as a human’s.

“We already know some of the most important barley mutations linked to drought tolerance,” says Dr Birgitte Skadhauge, head of Carlsberg Research Laboratory, which employs about 100 scientists. “It gives us in-built insurance against climate change.”

Carlsberg says that of the 15,000 barley lines it produces each year, fewer than five make it to market. Most are rejected because they don’t lead to robust plants or because they yield poor-tasting beers. And while the company has filed for multiple patents on its recent lab work, critics question whether the research is simply low-tech plant breeding presented as cutting-edge genetics –basically, old beer in new bottles.

Carlsberg says that of the 15,000 barley lines it produces each year, fewer than five make it to market.  PHOTO: AFP

“It’s simply not a technical innovation as we understand patent law,” says Mr Christoph Then of No Patents on Seeds!, a German non-profit opposing Carlsberg’s patent drive. “It’s conventional breeding.” Then also worries that while Carlsberg has a history of sharing its scientific research, that approach is “voluntary and can be revised by the company anytime they want.”

In response, Carlsberg says: “We have decided to make the technology of certain variants accessible to any breeder, seed producer, maltster and brewer under licence and have no intention to revoke any licence given.”

The beer industry is tackling the climate peril on several fronts. Heineken uses satellite data to monitor the vagaries of a local river that supplies water to a Dutch facility. Molson Coors Beverage backs a project that protects and restores watersheds on private land to ensure clean water for its Fort Worth, Texas, brewery. Anheuser-Busch InBev, maker of Budweiser, is tapping Nasa weather data to forecast barley yields in various regions.

Carlsberg’s forte is breeding better barley. That approach was on display on a chilly November morning in Copenhagen, when Dr Skadhauge led the way to a greenhouse lit by hot lights and thronged with thousands of barley grasses. Near a sign warning visitors about hidden mouse traps, a researcher used tweezers to transfer pollen grains from a “father plant” to a “mother plant”, a key step in the breeding method.

In a nearby room, where millions of barley DNA samples are stored, a scientist inspected 40 barley lines obtained from France. Various plants react differently to extreme heat versus drought, says Dr Skadhauge, and screening can help identify the necessary genetic variants.

Dr Skadhauge’s sights are trained on one particular barley variety: Null-LOX4G. Based on a quarter century of research and first introduced in a Carlsberg brew in 2020, the 4G line possesses a long list of desirable traits, including freshness, low water use and “foam stability.” That variety is now being crossed with hardy, drought-resistant ones. If the matchmaking succeeds, it could yield an entirely new barley plant — one fine-tuned for hotter and drier climes. Dr Skadhauge says the line, to be called Null-LOX5G, could be “commercialised in two years”.

Eager to earn a return on its research, Carlsberg currently holds six patents related to barley variants and has applied for several more, sometimes teaming up with rivals such as Heineken. In 2021, a group of 40 organisations including No Patents on Seeds, opposed three of the patents. The nonprofits argued that Carlsberg’s approach relied on random mutations in the barley genome and was therefore old-fashioned plant breeding masquerading as modern-day genetics and not worthy of a patent.

The European Patent Office disagreed. In May 2022 it rejected the opponents’ arguments and granted Carlsberg and Heineken a beer-and-barley patent. Carlsberg says the patent covers “technically developed barley traits that are missing in the malting and brewing industry today.” It plans to keep pushing for climate-proof beer.

“We are a company that takes climate change pretty seriously,” says Mr Hoffmeyer, the sustainability chief. “So we are turning over every stone, and that includes basic research.” BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

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