Beer, wine, cocktails: Here's how climate change is imperiling our Thanksgiving booze

Thanksgiving dinner isn’t quite what it used to be. As recent years have made clear, climate change is making turkey producers move north to avoid drenching hurricanes, reducing yields of the wheat used to make the bread for stuffing, and shrinking the size of the potatoes we love mashed, when nights are too warm. But what has gotten less attention is the impact accelerating climate change is having on our favorite Thanksgiving beverages.

The night before Thanksgiving is said to be the biggest drinking night in the U.S., in some locations even bigger than New Year’s Eve. Punch with a punch, beers, wines, and special cocktails are go-tos for partygoers home for the holidays and for beverage enthusiasts who prefer to savor a glass with the big meal.

Alas, our favorite drinks are in trouble. Big trouble.

Why? Because it’s getting challenging to grow grapes for wine, hops for beer, spices for gin, cranberries for punch, and grains for whiskey–to name only a few. Heat waves, floods, droughts, and weather extremes are taking a toll on the ingredients essential for our beloved drinks. If we want to keep our drinks around for Thanksgivings to come and year-round, we need to get serious about tackling our changing climate.

What’s happening? Let’s start with the punch that is often made with champagne. The Champagne region of France and source of 325 million bottles of champagne last year, is threatened by rising temperatures and more erratic weather. The oranges in the punch used to come mostly from Florida, but with the Sunshine State being walloped by hurricanes, California is now the leading producer. Cranberries are at increasing risk from heat waves, extreme weather, and drought–and apples have been hit in Washington State with extreme heat and in Michigan with unwelcomed freezes that wipe out blossoms.

Beer and wine are also on the climate change hit list. Beer is facing challenges because higher temperatures are affecting two key ingredients, hops and barley.  Hotter seasons pose serious risks to 85% of current wine-growing areas of the world unless vineyards are moved to better climes and the types of grapes grown are diversified. That Zinfandel that pairs so nicely with turkey is in trouble.

Then there is the hot toddy, to warm us up on a brisk Thanksgiving Day. The ingredients used in this drink include whiskey, which faces a number of changes, including droughts that threaten the water supplies of distilleries. Climate change is also likely to change the flavor of whiskey. The bees that give us honey have been declining for over 10 years, much of this due to changes in weather patterns. And droughts are already taking a toll on cinnamon, most of which we get from Indonesia.

Something a bit more exotic for this holiday is a pumpkin spice margarita. This complex drink faces a complex of challenges starting with tequila made from agave grown in Mexico. Rising temperatures and the loss of an essential pollinator due to climate change are threatening the future of agave. Several of the spices in the pumpkin spice come from India, the world’s largest producer, and where climate change is taking a toll on these amazing flavorings. The dab of canned pumpkin used in this margarita likely comes from Illinois, the source of about 50% of processing pumpkins. This year the supply is good but there was a “great pumpkin shortage” in 2015 because of heavy rains. 

For all of us who enjoy our drink, these few examples should be alarming. But the next time you have a drink with someone, or a group, here is something you can do: Start talking about what climate change is doing to our wines, beers, and cocktails. It shouldn’t be too difficult since 75% of us already talk about food. And talking about climate change is the first step in tackling it.

As you consider this conversation keep in mind that the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication identified the different ways people respond to the topic of climate change. The “Alarmed” have the highest belief in climate change, are the most concerned, and most the motivated but don’t know what to do. Would a reminder of what climate change means to their favorite wine or beer, motivate them to find out what they can do? Others are in the “Concerned” category and think climate change is caused by humans, and is serious, but don’t see it as a high priority because the effect won’t be felt until far into the future and will occur somewhere else. Let them know what is happening to their favorite drinks right here and now and get them talking.

There are also the cautious and disengaged who aren’t sure if climate change is happening or serious or know little about it. Could raising awareness about what’s happening to their favorite beer help them become informed and get serious?

A national survey, conducted with colleagues showed that over 60% of Republicans and Democrats are concerned about climate change impacts on their food choices and want to learn more about climate change impacts on their food. Over the Thanksgiving holidays, why not try using everyone’s favorite drink to inform and motivate them to act on climate change?

Give it a try but don’t limit it to Thanksgiving. Just maybe, using the power of our favored drinks–so widely enjoyed, fun, and personal–can make a difference. We must try whatever it takes–now. Cheers!

Mike Hoffmann is professor emeritus at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a faculty fellow with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. He is lead author of Our changing menu: Climate change and the foods we love and need. See also the Our changing menu website. He has done a TEDx, “Climate Change: It’s time to raise our voices” and teaches an eCornell climate change leadership course

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