Barley shortage hitting us where it hurts

March 9, 2011

When food shortages caused people to revolt in Tunisia, then Egypt, we yawned.

When the cost of corn, wheat and rice began climbing in the past year because of droughts, floods and a surge in demand from livestock and ethanol plants, we shrugged.

But when a global shortage of grain finally hits us where it really hurts – in our beer bellies – we suddenly have to stand up and take notice.

There was a horrible story in newspapers this week, hidden somewhere behind the revolution in Libya and cholera outbreaks in Haiti, and it hit me like a full keg dropped on my foot.

You may want to get the kids to leave the room before you read this. Ahem: Looks like beer prices may rise across Canada by the end of this year, as brewers struggle with a spike in malting barley costs of as much as a third.

How can they let this happen? And why does it have to happen to our beloved beer? I realize barley has other uses, including, I’m told, as an ingredient in bread, animal feed and soup. But let’s be honest: no one craves a cool, frothy glass of oatmeal.

Brewers are warning beer prices could start increasing as soon as the second half of this year, but are more likely starting in 2012. And the root of the problem may lie right here in the home of the world’s largest malting barley exporter, namely western Canada, where bad weather has cut into barley harvests.

Barley can be a brewer’s second-largest cost after labour, meaning that when the price spike comes, it will probably be permanent. So what’s a beer drinker to do?

“Drink up now, is my advice,” suggested Dwayne Dubois, chief financial officer at Alberta’s Big Rock Brewery, who knows a marketing opportunity when he sees one.

Uh, thanks for the tip, Dwayne.

I can handle gasoline at $1.20 a litre. I can stomach bread at $4 a loaf. But this, this is unreasonable. What do they expect us to do, cut back? Drink water?

Beer drinkers everywhere may be may be forced to get creative. We may have to take matters in our own hands. Why should we be held captive by the brewery fat cats, laughing at us from their delicious-smelling boardrooms?

Since we can all agree that beer is a wonderful thing, makes our jokes that much funnier, and allows us to get through yet another episode of Say Yes to the Dress with our fiancées, I say we start making beer ourselves.

I tried brewing beer, once. It was a less than successful venture, so John Sleeman needn’t lose any sleep, at least not yet.

I was 16 when I borrowed my mother’s car, bought the cheapest beer-making kit I could find at my local Co-op grocery store, and mixed the slurry up in my bedroom using a hosed-down bucket that once held rock salt.

I hid the special brew in my closet and waited for liquid gold.

A month later, the beer, if you can call it that, looked like unfiltered apple cider with an inch of chalk dust in the bottom of each bottle. But my teenage friends and I chugged it down anyway, in two-litre bottles, mason jars and whatever other bottles we could find.

Back then, quality control only meant keeping it all hid from my mother. The beer itself was awful. I guess at age 16 you’re looking for other things from your beer than the bouquet.

But I’m a refined adult now. So be warned, Molson-Coors, Anheuser-Bush and all the rest: I don’t have to hide things in my closet anymore.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at, and past columns can be read at

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