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Could a CO2 shortage cause problems for Wisconsin brewers?

Restaurants also use CO2 to pour soft drinks and draft beer.
Posted at 12:47 PM, Aug 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-04 15:13:00-04

MILWAUKEE — Your favorite beer could soon become hard to find. It is not because of the ingredients you may know, but because of carbon dioxide.

It may be the secret ingredient in beer you never knew you loved: CO2. It contributes to the body, the smell, the foam and the shelf life of your favorite drink. Now with the price about to rise, it could cost you.

"It seems like every other week we're getting a notification of one of our costs going up," said Andy Gehl, Third Space Brewing co-owner.

The owners of Third Space Brewing in the Menomonee Valley are already working in overdrive to have enough supply for Oktoberfest.

They are relieved to have a reliable supplier of carbon dioxide. Co-owner Kevin Wright says it is costing them more. "CO2, we're up about 25 percent on what we were paying," said Gehl.

"We don't want to pass those costs to our end, consumers either," said Gehl. "So sometimes we have to raise prices slightly."

Much of the nation's natural carbon dioxide used in beer is shipped from an extinct volcano in Jackson, Mississippi. But a recent contamination issue is causing the shortages.

Chemist Sam Rushing provides CO2 consulting services worldwide and owns Advanced Cryogenics Limited. He says the contamination came from too much sulfur. "It would have off taste. It tastes funny. That's what would happen. The beverage industry has the highest standards for purity and quality so those are the industries that are so methodically concerned with quality," he said.

Chemist Sam Rushing also updated us Thursday with this detailed statement with new developments, "There is an update surrounding the CO2 sources in Jackson, MS... the plants are generally back in service, at least on a partial basis. The reported reason for the outage, and reduction in capacity among several plants, has been mechanical problems. The mechanical problems led the raw gas supplier to take product from other wells to serve the CO2 refiners. Today, it is stated the contaminants were hydrocarbons, including benzene. I also understand the supplies to the gas refiners/producers are generally back to operating status, and the impurities have been corrected; thus at least one producer stated they are now producing a beverage grade quality. As to high levels of hydrocarbons, such as benzene; all of this could yield an off taste. At the levels found during this time, they would probably not have been so much a health hazard, however, based on strict beverage quality guidelines, not been able to meet the criteria to produce beverage grade product with the existing plant design now in place from this source. I am told by one beverage grade CO2 manufacturer, they are currently online, and producing beverage grade product as of today. I suspect the half a dozen or so sources should be online soon; and hopefully returning to full production in the near future. The CO2 industry is highly integrated from a production and distribution perspective, and one or two plants among the 111 US facilities experiencing problems, can have a domino affect within the industry. As for the natural sources in Mississippi, it is understood the problems are being corrected, and beverage grade CO2 is back online for at least some of the operators."

"It goes into every beer we make," said Wright. "It adds to the finished mouthy texture to the beer and it's as important from a quality standpoint compared to all of our other raw materials."

Making 14,000 barrels at this business alone, they need a lot of it. Every cost increase is going to have a wide impact they hope will not last long.

A Wisconsin Brewers Guild board member tells us they are hopeful the CO2 shortage will not affect our state as much, especially the Midwest, because there are many industries that produce CO2 as a byproduct.

Gehl says they are working on creating new brews. "Just a few weeks ago we released the Milwaukee Mule. It's actually a beer that's based on the Moscow Mule cocktail, and we have another beer that's coming out soon called 'Hoppy Lager.' Click here to learn more about Third Space Brewing.

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