When I turned 21, I was living in New Mexico. My first legally purchased beer was Fat Tire, at the time only available west of the Mississippi. As someone raised in Massachusetts and in an era before the explosion of craft breweries, it was the peak of novelty at the time.
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I’ve held fond memories of Fat Tire to this day, even now that I can buy it at my local bodega in New York. It’s a great sipper for a summer day; gripping a cold bottle can instantly make the light layer of sweat on the back of your neck dissipate and the crisp hit to the palette can wash away a day’s worries. And in our world, washing away worries, even if only for as long as it takes to split a six-pack with friends is a precious, sweet relief. As a climate reporter, I’ll take the few and far between simple comforts that I can get.
So it pains me to say that New Belgium, the brewery behind Fat Tire, has taken that all away for me. Their new beer is an anxiety-inducing, foul-tasting nightmare by design. Called Torched Earth, it’s a taste of beer from the future... if humanity doesn’t get its act together. Frankly, it’s a future that, while surely worth living, isn’t exactly what most of us would enjoy.
Climate communication often centers around what we can see: Collapsing ice, walls of flames, and yes, even starving polar bears have all played a role in defining the dangerous present and downright apocalyptic future humanity faces if fossil fuel interests continue to define our fate. Torched Earth, though, invokes smell and taste (in addition to sight) to convey what could lie ahead.
Brewers took the basics of beer—grain, water, yeast—and put them through the gauntlet of climate change. The beer was launched on Earth Day to raise awareness that many companies lack concrete climate goals, let alone roadmaps for how to get there—and get people to pressure brands to get it together if we want to avoid a terrible future. (New Belgium has a pretty detailed plan that includes reducing its emissions and has made Fat Tire carbon neutral via offsets, which have a long and complicated history but that’s for another time.)
Instead of malted barley, Torched Earth is made with more drought-tolerant grains like buckwheat and millet. Astringent dandelions are tossed in for added flavor. And smoked malt is used to mimic the effect of wildfire-smoked water.
“Unfortunately, I could’ve actually used wildfire water,” Cody Reif, the R&D brewer at New Belgium, said in an email. “The Poudre River supplies water to our city and runs less than a quarter-mile from the brewery and is filled with black water right now from the forest fires that devastated Northern Colorado last fall. This isn’t even the first time we’ve had our water supply threatened in the last 10 years.”
Armed with knowing what we were about to get into, my wife, a friend who is a homebrewer, and I settled in for a tasting session. (My friend asked me to note he was wearing a beanie on a perfect spring day as proof of his homebrewing cred. Please take this review seriously is what I’m trying to say.) The resulting beer can be politely described as funky and more artfully described as a turducken of ass flavors. The three of us immediately agreed to not repeat this experience again.
Among the tasting notes I jotted down for the three of us were “dirty,” “almost oily” (fitting!), “smells like a sour, tastes like Sweet Tarts but there’s some smoke on it for sure,” and “everyone is shaking their head.” The beer even looked muddy compared to a traditional nice, filtered ale. My beanie-clad homebrew friend summed it up like this: “On a nice day like this, an ale makes you feel refreshed. Not this.” (More headshaking followed.)
To wash the taste of climate change out of our mouths, we followed it up with the original Fat Tire, which was crystal clear and sharp in comparison. It brought back those happy memories of turning 21 and sitting in the waning sunlight of the high desert and feeling like the entire world was opening up before me.
Torched Earth is the polar opposite of all that, a reminder that if we continue on the current path of letting a few corporations lie and recklessly pollute the atmosphere in the name of profit, the window to a better life will be closed a bit tighter. The simple pleasures we all live for will be harder to come by. The relaxation we all crave will be replaced by hardship.
Of course, in the future where Torched Earth is the flagship beer of a major brewery, we’ll have a lot bigger problems to worry about. And it’s not that New Belgium isn’t aware of that; Reif said that the climate crisis is “obviously a really serious topic but the thought exercise [of creating Torched Earth] was an interesting challenge” from a brewer’s standpoint.
“The process of making it opened my eyes, and I’m absolutely positive we didn’t capture all the potential risks,” he added.
But all too often those bigger problems—the collapse of the Antarctic, the rise of violence and famine, the sixth mass extinction—can seem impossible to grasp onto. But while you can’t hold the heat death of 1 million species in your hands, you can grip a can of Torched Earth. And to be able to hold that piece of the bad future now is enough to make you want to ball your other hand into a fist and fight for everything else we stand to lose.