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The U.K. and Europe lose their fizz as a CO2 shortage rocks pubs, restaurants

Anyone who’s visited the United Kingdom or Western Europe knows that their pubs serve as more just a place to hoist a pint — they are the living room for millions, a place to socialize with family and friends, take a load off, and watch a soccer game. Unfortunately, the region is facing a big bummer during an increasingly hot summer as a gas crisis is poised to kill the buzz at the local.

Specifically, the region is being rocked by a lack of carbon dioxide (CO2), the industrial, food-grade gas used in the production of everything from Heineken beer to Orangina’s fizzy soda pop. The situation is so bad that Wetherspoons, the chain of posh pubs located throughout the U.K., says it will soon be forced to pull a number of beers and fizzy drinks from its menu. This week, Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs set up an emergency committee to examine the scale of the problem.

The crisis is a result of a chain of events that almost no one in the industry anticipated. Here’s the deal: CO2 is primarily produced by ammonia plants, although small batches are also created by subsidiary producers like chemical operations, bi-ethanol plants and, ironically, as a by-product from whiskey distilleries in Scotland.

However, ammonia is used in fertilizer production, an industry whose peak output runs from August to March. Accordingly, fertilizer manufacturers plan maintenance or factory shutdowns to run from April to June or so.

But, but, but … this same period is the peak time for the production of soft and alcoholic drinks. Now, this is a coincidence the manufacturers know about, and normally they plan accordingly. What’s mucked up the works this year is not only the timing of planned maintenance, but the fact that ammonia market prices have fallen to a low, while imports from outside of Western Europe prompted manufacturers to prolong this year’s downtime. Add to these economics the fact that natural gas prices (a major raw component in ammonia production) are running high, and there’s not much of an incentive for CO2 plants to ramp up production.

Things are looking a bit grim in the U.K., where only one major CO2 plant is still in production, and brewers like Heineken are calling the crisis “a major issue.” The U.K. is more troubled than its European allies in that there are limited shipments across the Channel due to plant shut-downs in Benelux and France. For Britain, it’s a grim reminder of a similar crisis in 2015 that was mostly limited to the mainland. More than 80 percent of beer consumed in the U.K. is produced in-country according to the British Beer and Pub Association.

Ceasing beer production in the middle of the World Cup is already a crisis of major proportions, but the CO2 situation is about to impact the U.K.’s grocery stores as well. The gas is vital to meat production, as it is used for both slaughtering and packaging, with the British Poultry Council issuing stark warnings that up to sixty percent of poultry processing plants could be offline within days due to the gas shortage.

Fioan Steigler, deputy director of the British Meat Processors Association doubled down on the crisis this week.

“We are getting very concerned,” she said. “Supply is running out and it’s pretty tight for some people. Others hope to see it out. We don’t know when supplies will be back up. We’ve been told it could be about a month.”

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