CO2 shortage? Will beer become the next toilet paper?

If you told me one side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic would be a potential shortage of beer, I would have said, “Of course, people are drinking more than ever. There are 22 million unemployed people sitting at home, and everyone else is stuck at home with their family, and their only solace is beer.”

The real reason for the potential beer shortage is a lack of CO2. I can already hear the peanut gallery asking, “How in the hell do we end up with a shortage of carbon dioxide, haven’t you heard of a thing called global warming? Atmospheric CO2 is at an all time high.” This is certainly true; we are at a historic level of carbon dioxide, approximately 400 parts per million (ppm). In beer drinking terms, the carbon dioxide by volume (CO2BV) in the atmosphere is 0.04%. Your non-alcoholic beers have an ABV of 0.3%. So harvesting from the atmosphere isn’t exactly practical.

So where does most of CO2 come from? It is produced as a byproduct when ethanol is manufactured. As the homebrewers know, yeast “eats” sugar and produces alcohol and CO2. When making it on an Andre-the-Giant-sized industrial scale like the manufacturers at Craig, Carrollton, and St Joseph, you have plenty of CO2 available. For an example of scale, Missouri produces almost 300 millions gallons (~10 million BBL) of ethanol annually, or about the same volume as Sam Adams and Yuengling combined. Unbeknown to everyone except the four Senators who sold most of their stocks over a month ago, the world was going to change drastically, and every sector of the economy would feel the effect.

A pandemic would strike the world, Russia and Saudi Arabia would start pumping oil at an unprecedented rate, and prices would plunge. This would start forcing ethanol producers to scale back as their demand suddenly dropped. Just when things couldn’t get any worse, the country shut down, and damn near all driving stopped, plunging demand for ethanol even more.

Things have gotten so dire, the Compressed Gas Association has sent a letter to Vice President Pence. A portion of their letter says, “Preliminary data show that production of CO2 has decreased by approximately 20%, and experts predict that CO2 production may be reduced by 50% by mid-April unless action is taken to stabilize existing sources of CO2”. Later on in the letter, they mention beer specifically: “A shortage in CO2 would impact the U.S. availability of fresh food, preserved food and beverages, including beer production.” So even they realize we need beer. Now I don’t actually think we will run out of CO2 and beer, but just like during the hop shortage of 2007, the increased price will simply be passed onto the consumer, or we will just have to go back to bottle conditioned beer.

Do any KC brewery insiders know if this is causing problems locally?

For more reading check out the following links.
The Guardian
Compressed Gas Association.
Fox News
American Homebrewers Association
U.S. News

Brett A. Myces

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