Not every craft beer turns out to be perfect, and in some cases, messed-up batches have turned beers like New Glarus’s Serendipity or Lagunitas’s Lagunitas Sucks from happy accidents into beloved staples. But until now, there’s never been a case of a brewery intentionally brewing a bad beer.
Enter New Belgium’s Torched Earth Ale. The Colorado-based brewery has put together the less-than-ideal beer as a way to highlight the importance of preventing climate change; it’s brewed with the limited ingredients that would likely be available in a climate-ravaged future, and it provides a sobering (no pun intended) glimpse of what craft beer fans can look forward to if they don’t act now to reduce carbon emissions and fight global warming.
“We wanted to show the real, tangible effects of climate change on the brewing industry,” Cody Reif, research and development brewer at New Belgium Brewing, tells InsideHook. “It’s easy to talk about what’s happening, but when you can physically see and taste something, it makes the concept much more real.”
To determine what beer might taste like in the middle of a post-apocalyptic climate crisis, Reif and his team landed on three major risks associated with climate change — forest fires, shifting agricultural zones and extreme weather events/drought — and selected ingredients that would highlight the impact they would have on beer.
To represent forest fires, the brewery used smoked malt to mimic smoke-tainted water. “Believe it or not, we’ve been close to this problem for a while,” Reif says. “There’s been two nasty forest fires in Northern Colorado in the last 10 years. Smokey flavor in water isn’t something you can remove easily, and those aromas will carry all the way through our process and end up right in the finished product.”
For an accurate reflection of the effects of shifting climate zones on agriculture, they opted to use drought-resistant grains like buckwheat and millet along with readily available dandelions to provide bitterness.
“We’ve got some nontraditional extract sources in here with millet and buckwheat [extract refers to the carbohydrates found in grains which are ultimately fermented into alcohol and CO2],” Reif explains. “With increased temperatures, the growing regions for barley could become limited, and other extracts might be needed to bridge the gap. The ones we selected are more tolerant to shifting agricultural zones. I should mention if using a large amount of these adjunct extracts, it is necessary to use exogenous enzymes to help break down starch into simple sugars, a process essential to making beer and something barley does really, really well.”
Reif also points out that in the event of a drought or some other type of extreme weather event, breweries would no longer have access to fresh ingredients — something that has a huge impact on a beer’s overall taste. “This could cause the loss of entire crop years,” he says. “In that circumstance, we would be reliant on shelf stable ingredients. We’re using malt extract, which is stable for multiple years. It’s expensive and isn’t as good as regular malt — think bad homebrew maltiness. We’re also using a hop extract for bittering for the same reasons. One thing to mention here: IPAs would be specifically affected by lost hop crops. Aroma hops don’t make extracts very well, and IPAs need good aroma hops.”
Try a sip or two of Torched Earth, and you can immediately tell that something’s off. It’s extremely thin, and there’s not much flavor save for that smokiness. (It kind of tastes like if you left a watered-down macrobrew sitting out next to an ashtray for a while at a party.) Of course, it has to be gross in order for New Belgium to effectively make their point. But while it’s definitely bad, it’s not vile. Was there any concern from Reif that the beer wouldn’t turn out badly enough?
“Yeah, we thought about that,” he admits. “Some of the ingredients on their own are actually quite good. Millet and buckwheat, for example, are used to make gluten-free beers, and those grains have some nice flavors to them. Ultimately, I wasn’t too worried about the beer not tasting bad. Making good beer is really hard even when you have all options available, so it’s more or less impossible with such limited ingredients. It’s like going into the ring with one hand tied behind your back. You can be pretty confident it’s not going to go well.”
While he admits some of the upsetting flavors could have been a little more prevalent, he’s ultimately satisfied with how poorly the beer turned out.
“To be honest, I think the smoke taint isn’t as strong as it should be,” he says. “Having previously dealt with smoke-tainted water, it’s remarkably potent. I actually think that a really bad forest fire would make the beer taste even worse than what we brewed. Other than that the beer is pretty much what I expected. It’s got a kind of syrupy sweetness to it and no real body to support that. The aroma has virtually no hops to round it out. It legitimately bummed me out when I tried the finished product the first time. The idea that beer could actually turn into this is terrifying.”
So what can craft beer fans do to ensure that they never have to live in a world of thin, sweet, hop-deficient brews? To start, New Belgium is asking other breweries and members of the general public to join them in committing to 100% carbon neutrality by 2030.
“Educating yourself is key for both breweries and consumers,” Reif says. “For breweries, there’s lots of resources on sustainability through professional societies like MBAA and the Brewers Association. And of course, our inboxes here at New Belgium are always open if you need help finding answers. We want the whole industry to be working towards this goal. For consumers, take some time to learn about where your beer comes from, what sustainability plans your favorite brewery has in place. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Finally, I encourage you to check out drinksustainably.com. It’s a great first resource.”
If you’re curious about tasting Torched Earth for yourself, you can buy a four-pack here while supplies last. (It’s a limited run release, so you’ll have to act fast.) All proceeds from your purchase will go to Protect Our Winters, a non-profit dedicated to helping fight climate change.
“I’ve been amazed by the reaction to Torched Earth,” Reif says. “It seems to be really resonating with people. I hope this is the beginning of some real momentum for breweries, beer drinkers and beyond to think about climate change.”