Washington’s drought could stifle new breweries

Seattle is a city for making beer. There are over forty different breweries operating in the Emerald City and many of them come with bars or pubs attached – noisy, active places to hide away from the rain and sample some new label or brew.

But despite Seattle’s rain, the state is caught in a drought. And that might be bad news for anyone wanting to try their own hand at making beer any time soon.

The Drought

Now, Seattle isn’t in any danger of suddenly losing its rainy reputation, but Seattle isn’t the only place in Washington. The majority of the state lies in the much drier east, over the Cascade Mountains. Eastern Washington doesn’t share Seattle’s penchant for rain and on May 15th, Governor Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency in Washington State.

The problem is that there isn’t enough snow in the mountains. Maia Bellon, the director of Washington’s Department of Ecology, said in a release: “This drought is unlike any we’ve ever experienced. Rain amounts have been normal but snow has been scarce. And we’re watching what little snow we have quickly disappear.”

Click here for the interactive version!
Click here for the interactive version!

This is important because the snow acts like a battery for the state’s water supply. The mountains charge with winter snows and slowly release meltwater throughout the rest of the year. This year, however, the statewide snowpack is less than 15% of normal. The batteries are nearly empty.

Worse yet, we’re now heading into summer, which tends to be the driest part of Washington’s weather. And down south, El Niño, the quirk of warm and cold ocean currents which may help bring rain to California, is predicted to bring only more dryness and heat to Washington.

The Hops

Washington’s drought isn’t nearly as drastic as California’s, but there is a spike of severe drought conditions extending up through the map. And just inside that spike is a name that should have beer aficionados concerned – the Yakima River Valley.

Click here for the interactive version!
Data from the U. S. Drought MonitorClick here for the interactive version!

The Yakima River is a tight, cold ribbon of water that runs a short ways through central Washington before turning south into the Columbia River. People go white-water rafting on it. It feeds farms throughout the region, turning Yakima into a rich agricultural farmland. And one crop in particular grows well there – hops. America is the second biggest hop grower in the world and 77% of US hops are grown in the Yakima Valley.

Hops are tight, green flower buds that brewers use to help embitter and preserve the beer. Different strains can also add different, unique flavours to the beer and, as Markus Stinson of the Elysian Brewing Company explained, “As there are more and more breweries making more and more styles, especially hop-forward beers, everyone’s looking for something new, something that’ll blow people’s minds.”

Now, the drought isn’t a catastrophe. Regional reservoirs are still high, growers can use water-rationing plants and hops are relatively drought-tolerant plants. So a sudden, drastic shortage is probably not going to happen. But there are concerns. Farmers are having to spend a lot more money buying or pumping water for their plants and the warmer winter means that the plants are sprouting earlier and producing fewer buds. And any problems this year may only be magnified if the drought continues into next year as well.

Worse, the hops market is already very volatile right now. A study from Washington State University said “the economic climate for Washington hop producers is in chaos.” Chaos isn’t something farmers tend to like and some may abandon hops altogether if they can’t be sure they’ll make their money back. “Things are currently so volatile that growers can no longer count on being able to amortize the cost of planting,” said the report.

The Beer

Click here for the interactive version!
Click here for the interactive version!

All this translates into some potential problems for beer makers. Large-scale buyers are usually insulated from the worst of market spikes and dips, but small, craft brewers may not be able to weather them so well. “Especially if you’re a younger company, and you’re trying to break in and you’re brewing – basically you need more hops as you’re producing more beer,” said Markus.

That could affect more people than just Seattle hipsters – more than one out of every ten beers sold in America is now a craft beer, according to a 2014 report by the Brewer’s Association.

Breweries usually sign multi-year contracts with growers to get the hops they need, said Markus. Established or regional breweries usually have the process down to a routine and have enough padding to accommodate any potential miscalculations. But smaller companies have to take more risks.

“If you’re just starting a brewery, you do want to do your hop contracting, but what you’re doing is you’re taking a pretty good leap of faith,” said Markus. For a new business, trying to guess the market in years down the line… “It’s a tricky game.” And any uptick in the price of hops can quickly eat into the bottom line.

And prices for hops have already been rising. In 2005 the average pound of hops in Washington cost $1.86 according to the Hop Growers of America. In 2014 it was more than double – $3.89 per pound. And special varieties, the kind that can blow people’s minds, can be even more, up to over $20 per pound.

There probably isn’t going to be any sort of major shortage or collapse in the beer or hops market – this isn’t that kind of situation – but if drought conditions like this continue or become more common over the years, it may cut into a lot of purses and add more instability to an already unstable market.

So if Seattleites are hoping for more new, start-up breweries to open up in the Emerald City in the next few years, they may have to wait.

Two Patently Different Worlds

There’s been a lot of fuss about the Apple smart watch in the news lately. Something that didn’t escape the media’s notice was Apple’s snapping up of the US patent for the design. US-only though. The patent doesn’t extend to the international market, which means you can probably expect to see a lot of knockoffs in the coming months.

A diagram from Apple’s patent shows the basic design of the watch

And that’s kind of important. Patents are one of the cornerstones of modern industry – allowing inventors to recoup the research and development costs for new technology without having to worry about johnny-come-lately copycats. But they can also be used to muscle out potential competitors. Has anyone forgotten the slew of Samsung-Apple lawsuits?

And that’s just two companies in well-developed, affluent nations. When you start talking about patents in the globe as a whole, a new story emerges.


Click to see the interactive version!

The world’s patents are really dominated by just four countries – the United States, China, Japan and South Korea. It’s worth noting that the map up there is logarithmicwhich means every color change represents an entire order of magnitude more patents than the next one down.

In 2013, the United States got patents for 287,831 different inventions. Botswana got just eight.

Indeed, the World Intellectual Property Organization has acknowledged that there are just fundamentally different worlds here. “Considering the differences among countries,” they say on their website, “there might be a need to question the assumption of applying the same patent standard to all. A national strategy may need to be effectively set up on the basis of a country’s unique requirements and priorities.”

Patents are important. I’m not arguing that. But before we start digging trenches in what may be the next great iteration of the Apple-Samsung slogfest, let’s remember that this is a fight that most of the world doesn’t have access to.

So what’s The Upshot?

The Upshot is a data journalism site run by the New York Times. Looking through it, they’ve done some amazing, non-traditional graphics. I want to highlight two and make a very particular point about graphics in general.

Mapping Migration in the United States

This novel form of treemap shows the origin of various states' populations.
This novel form of treemap shows the origin of various states’ populations.

You should really click on the link and see this in full. It’s a kind of treemap (like the last post I did), but instead of using boxes, they’ve actually worked each map into the shape of their states. Coding this must have been a fun challenge and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a map like it.

But does it work? Eh. I have my qualms with it. The nontraditional shapes are very interesting to look at, but it’s hard to actually judge sizes – look at Wisconsin and Texas’ proportion of natives (the big grey circle). Even though 72% of Wisconsin’s population is native-born, its circle is smaller than Texas’ 61%. That’s obviously an artefact of Texas’ sheer area compared to Wisconsin, but it’s still a little weird.

That’s not to say it’s all bad. The tooltips and zoom function help. Plus it’s backed up by some other, more traditional graphics that are a little easier to read.

What 2,000 Calories Looks Like

On the other hand, you have this story. Still from The Upshot. The article is about how much you have to eat to get 2,000 calories from different restaurants. The beautiful thing about it is that, instead of trying to use some abstract number or bar graph, The Upshot just shows you the food.

What 2,000 calories looks like from Starbucks and Pizza Hut. Image from The Upshot.
What 2,000 calories looks like from Starbucks and Pizza Hut. Image from The Upshot.

It’s simple, evocative, and, in the end, easier to understand than any symbol or number. I’ve been eating food all my life [citation needed], I just intrinsically know what looks like a lot.

So what’s the upshot of The Upshot? Novel visualizations should be celebrated for their experimental attitude, but a data story doesn’t need a complicated presentation to be a great story.

Who’s losing the Sixth Extinction?

Animals and plants are going extinct so fast, some scientists have proposed calling our time period the Sixth Extinction. But who loses the most during this?

Click the picture to see it interactive!
Click the picture to see it interactive!

The IUCN red list has declared 77 mammal species extinct, the largest proportion of which have been rodents. Deer, diprotodont marsupials (an order that includes animals like kangaroos and koalas) and shrews have also been hit hard.

I should note that the IUCN list isn’t a comprehensive list, so some species may be missing. It also doesn’t list subspecies, so just by looking at it you may never know that Mexico once had grizzly bears or that Europe once had lions, for example. There are also many species that are presumed extinct but may not be – it’s just been so long since anyone’s seen one that we’re not sure if they exist or not. So there’s a lot of nuances that are missing from this casual overview.

But it can illustrate a big truth. And that’s that it’s often not the big, charismatic animals that suffer the most during extinctions. It’s true that tigers are in trouble but that’s just one species. Nearly 40 different rodents species have disappeared from the IUCN’s lists.

And that’s just mammals, which only make up 9 per cent of the extinct animals. And that’s just one kingdom – it doesn’t even count plants, fungi or other types of life.

That’s the subtle truth about the current extinction event. Most of it happens far from the public’s eye. And for every panda or rhino we can save, dozens, maybe hundreds, of less photogenic species fall away.

A little rain isn’t going to save California from Drought 2015

The drought in California is so dire that it’s been declared a State of Emergency by Governor Brown. The problem isn’t that there’s been no rain, there has been some over the last few months. There were a few big downpours in mid-February across the state, for example.

But just like a coldsnap doesn’t disprove global warming, a few brief showers doesn’t necessarily spell the end of the drought. Plus, winter is always California’s rainiest time of year, so some rain isn’t unexpected. But for the rest of the time, the state has to rely on meltwater from snow to sustain the state. And those numbers are looking pretty thin.

California Precip Dashboard
The state is trying to help the situation by creating a $1 billion emergency drought package and by pushing for water-use reductions. But with so little snowpack in reserve, it’s looking like it’s going to be a long, dry summer for Californians.

Let it flow, let it flow, can’t hold me back anymore

I seem to constantly get stuck. Data journalism is really useful and powerful, but it does require a bit of technical know-how to perform. More than any other form of journalism there definitely seems to be a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it.

So in order to help myself when I’ve gotten stuck (and to help me remember what program to use when) I’ve made myself a flowchart.

A flowchart of how to do a data journalism story
Stuck? Maybe this can help.

Now, the flowchart does skip over a lot of crunchwork and there are definitely things missing. There’s a lot more tools than the ones I’ve put down. I’ve been recently playing around with SQLite and it seems really useful. So the flowchart will probably need updating in the near future. But it can at least help me wrap my brain around a project. Hopefully you’ll find it at least a little helpful as well.

Eclipse disappointment? Prepare for a long wait

Did you get a good view of last week’s eclipse? If you were in London, I’m guessing not. I spent most of it in a coffee shop’s basement and, frankly, my view was about as good as anyone else’s.


The clouds just about killed the experience. I mean, this might as well have been my view last Friday.

A grey square - Artist's impression of my view of London's eclipse last Friday

I guess it’s to be expected. March isn’t known for it’s clear skies, after all. It averages only 3.7 hours of sunshine a day. Are the next ones going to be any better?

This table shows the dates of the next ten solar eclipses, how much of the sun will be covered, and what the weather is likely to be like for that month.
What’s the weather likely to be like on days of a solar eclipse? Depends on the month it happens in. The table was based on data from timeanddate.com and the Met Office.

There’s going to be a few minor ones in the next few years, but they’re not going to be that impressive. Last week’s eclipse covered about 80% of the sun. The next time we’ll get one nearly as big will be on August 12, 2026. Luckily the weather should hopefully cooperate. August gets almost twice as much sunshine as March.

Of course, these are all partial eclipses. If you’re waiting for the next time London sees a total solar eclipse, as in the moon covering all 100% of the sun, you might want to plan your retirement very carefully – it won’t be until September 23rd, 2090.