Twenty-seven years ago this March, the New York Times declared the Alaska Delta barley project, the dream of the late and revered Gov. Jay Hammond and policy sidekick Bob Palmer, a giant bust.
Increasingly now, however it is looking more and more like Hammond and Palmer might simply have been ahead of their time.
Fears of a global barley shortage have been all over the news since the late summer of last year.
“Your Craft Beer Is About to Get More Expensive,” Bloomberg warned in November above a story saying that lower-than-expected barley harvests in Canada “emerged just as global stockpiles are poised to tumble to a 35-year low after dry conditions cut production from Europe to Australia, boosting costs for brewers and distillers who use the malted grain to make whiskey and other beverages.”
The story followed on an August study suggesting a warming planet could radically reduce barley harvests in traditional production areas.
That story and others spun off a study published in Nature Plants wherein scientists from China, the United Kingdom and California used five earth-system models to estimate future climate and then assess how climate change would affect barley production.
“Beer production might seem like a trivial consideration when it comes to climate change” Nature subsequently reported. “But (scientist Dabo) Guan hopes that highlighting a single luxury product will get people thinking about the broad implications of global warming.”
The story contained a graphic predicting beer prices in some countries could jump by almost $1 per 500 millilitres to almost $5 per 500 millilitres, depending on the how much the climate warms.
Sales to China
The rising cost of barley was forecast to drive down consumption.
“As the world’s largest overall consumer of beer, China would show the biggest national drop in beer consumption, drinking 4.34 billion fewer litres of beer each year,” Nature’s Matthew Warren wrote. “Even the United States — a rare case of a country actually producing more barley after climate change — would also see a decrease in national beer consumption, as it would be exporting more barley than it ever has before.”
The export potential helped fuel Alaska’s barley dream in the 1970s and ’80s.
“Alaska is tapping its oil wells for a second product — bountiful cropland — to ensure a continuing harvest long after the oil runs out,” the Christian Science Monitor’s Jonathan Harsch reported in 1980. “Over the past 18 months, forests have been stripped and converted into rich fields of grain. The transformation, at a cost so far of $15 million for the first 50,000-acre, state-run demonstration project at Delta Junction, southeast of Fairbanks, has been made possible by oil revenues. It comes at a time when agricultural experts are increasingly concerned by the steady loss of U.S. farmland to urban sprawl and industrialization.
“The payoff, said bearded Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond on a visit to Chicago, is that with this fall’s harvest his state has joined the grain export business. The first harvest from 14,000 acres is out doing all predictions, and Governor Hammond expects that more than 10,000 tons of barley will be shipped to customers in Asia this year.”
Hammond’s proclamation would prove to be almost as premature as later Gov. Sarah Palin’s Republican National Convention claim that Alaska had begun “a nearly $40 billion natural gas pipeline to help lead America to energy independence.”
Not a single shovel of dirt was turned on the gasline project, but the state did purchase the makings of a grain terminal for the port of Seward on Resurrection Bay, and the Alaska Railroad bought grain cars to move barley from Central Alaska to the coast.
Unfortunately, the export market never materialized.
“After spending more than $120 million to create farms where none existed before, the state has given up on a dream born when oil money grew faster than anything planted in the ground,” the NYT reported in March 1992.
Delta barley was long viewed as one of the little-populated state’s biggest boondoggles, though there have been some challenges to that conclusion in recent years.
“It is true…that the Delta project flopped as it was originally planned….The state paid for the clearing of land, held a lottery to attract farmers and helped provide financing,” reporter Tim Bradner wrote in the Alaska Journal of Commerce in 2016.
“Bad luck played into the plan, however. Once lands were cleared and farmers were established, several years of unusually bad weather hit just as people were learning the ropes. Most important, world grain prices collapsed, which undermined the whole scheme.”
Global warming bonanza?
Since then, Alaska has steadily warmed.
Four of the state’s 10 warmest years have come in this decade, according to Alaska Climate Research Center data.
And the warming is predicted to continue.
At this time, there are don’t appear to be any brewers making beer with Alaska barley malt, but a 1991 analysis conducted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks concluded that growing conditions in “Interior Alaska are not ideal for cereal grain production, this preliminary study indicates that,
under proper management, it should be possible to produce a malting barley of acceptable quality in Alaska.”
Since 1991, the climate for growing barley in Alaska has only improved and the made-in-Alaska beer industry has exploded.
“The number of Alaska breweries and brewpubs mushroomed by over 150 percent from 2007 to 2017, and there’s no sign the state recession has hit Alaska’s brewers,” state economist Neal Fried reported in November 2017.
“Between 2007 and 2017, the amount of locally produced craft beer sold more than doubled from 454,000 gallons to 919,000 gallons,” he observed. “The percentage of Alaska produced beer sold in the state also more than doubled, from 3 percent to 7 percent.”
“During that same period, the amount of craft beer consumed in the state grew from 2.3 million gallons to 4.2 million gallons per year. At the same time, consumption of big beer fell from 11.9 million gallons to 9.6 million gallons, a 25 percent drop.”
Here, as elsewhere, big beer still dominates the market, but the trend lines show steady and continuing movement toward locally produced beer.
Alaska beer and Alaska barley malt seem a match destined to happen sooner rather than later. The Grace Ridge Brewing Company in Homer is already brewing a beer flavored with locally grown hops, the Kenai Peninsula Clarion reported.
Beer appears on its way to become to Alaska what wine is to France.
With Alaska barley, Alaska hops, Alaska water all linked to that scenically overwhelming Alaska terroir, there’s no telling how far the 49th state’s tastiest manufactured product might go globally in a barley-short world.
And with climate change hotting up the rest of the planet, who wouldn’t want to pop a cold one from the far north?