This summer, climate change devastated crop production as severe droughts decimated everything from corn in Texas to rice in California. As the world continues to warm, your favorite things to eat and drink may start to taste worse, too.
When global warming kicks into high gear, it will affect both the nutritional value and taste of the food and drinks we consume. In particular, according to recent research, three everyday beverages might bear the full brunt of climate change, and our palates may suffer for it: coffee, wine, and beer. Can the beverage industries adapt to a changing climate and save our favorite drinks?
Coffee: Can our favorite bean juice adapt to a warmer world?
Sean Cash, a Bergstrom Foundation Professor in Global Nutrition at Tufts University and co-author of a 2018 review in Frontiers looking at environmental factors that impact coffee flavor, says that many studies will use a coffee tasting panel to assess the quality and flavor profile of the coffee and make sure it resonates with consumers.
High-end coffee has seen a booming growth trajectory in recent decades. A market forecast report from 2021 projects the industry will grow by more than $68 billion by 2026. But all that could come crashing down with climate change.
“We have already seen problems when we talk about climate and coffee,” Cash says. “We're not talking about some distant future. These problems are happening now.”
Climate change can impact certain compounds in plants known as metabolites, which can affect the taste and aroma of coffee beans, tea plants, and many more crops. This includes sugars, lipids, and minerals, but also subtler chemicals that have an influence on taste.
There are dozens of popular coffee varieties, but the two dominant species of coffee are Coffea arabica and Coffea robusta. Robusta is more resilient, but has a more bitter taste, as Inverse reported last year. Arabica, on the other hand, has a better flavor profile but typically is less adaptable to a changing climate. By 2050, climate change will drive the areas capable of growing arabica — in fragile climates at high elevation — to drop by up to 50 percent.
“We're already seeing impacts on yield and impacts on quality that have impacted supply chains,” Cash says.
It’s already a common plight in Guatemala, where a fungal blight known as coffee leaf rust is wiping out crops, causing impoverished coffee workers to migrate to the U.S. in search of economic opportunities.
Cash’s research found that light exposure negatively affects coffee quality, so farmers could plant more canopy crops to provide shade and adapt to hotter and sunnier conditions, but droughts and extreme temperatures could hinder these efforts.
“When you have more stable conditions, in general, it's easier for farmers to plant things across multiple years,” Cash says. Infrastructure challenges like roads could make moving to higher elevations impractical as well.
But there is reason to be hopeful. According to Cash, the specialty coffee industry is planning strategies to adapt its beans to climate change. Inverse reported last year on a climate-resilient bean, Stenophylla, from Sierra Leone that some scientists believe could help save coffee from climate change due to its strong flavor profile and ability to be farmed under a wide range of climate conditions.
Beer: Will climate change make brews taste worse?
Beer, unlike coffee, is a beverage that combines several ingredients, each with different climate vulnerabilities. There are three ingredients that could be most affected:
Barley — A key ingredient in beer that could see steep drops in crop yield. A 2018 study in Nature Plants found global barley yield could significantly drop — anywhere from 3 to 17 percent. Globally, the price of beer is expected to double in part due to barley shortages.
Wheat — Drought and temperature changes could affect crop yield, though some studies suggest production will improve due to expanded temperate regions for wheat cultivation. But NBC15 (a local news station in Madison, WI) reports that climate change has altered protein content in crops like barley and wheat, leading to altered color and mouthfeel — meaning even with an expanded range, flavor quality could drop.
Hops — Colleen Doherty, a professor of molecular and structural biology at North Carolina State University, tells Inverse that climate change could deteriorate specialized metabolites in hops that include flavor compounds, vitamins, antioxidants, and more.
“Depending on which hop varieties you chose, when you add them and how much you add can dramatically change the flavor,” Doherty tells Inverse.
According to Doherty, global warming and changing weather patterns affect how much energy plants can devote to producing specialized metabolites. When plants are under environmental stress due to changing temperatures, they may make more of certain compounds and fewer of others to fight off stress.
“For example, if a hop plant is under attack by insects while under heat stress, it might divert its resources to defending against the insect attack, or it might prioritize the response to the heat stress,” Doherty says.
Hotter nighttime temperatures lead to chalkier, fragile rice grains and altered wheat quality, affecting breadmaking potential. Without further data, it’s hard to know for certain whether beer will taste better or worse — but it will almost certainly be different, Doherty says.
Wine: Can viticulture adapt to climate change?
In recent years, extended drought and wildfires have pummeled wine-growing regions across the globe, from California to Italy. France faced its worst grape harvest since the 1950s, leading to billions of Euros in lost revenue. Climate change makes both droughts and wildfires more severe and frequent, decimating the crop yield of wine grapes.
But perhaps less understood is how climate change can impact the flavor of wine, with two big factors of concern: warmer temperatures and wildfire smoke.
A 2020 paper in Applied Sciences describes how climate change will impact the key components of white wine, including increased sugar and “excessively high” alcohol content as well as reduced acidity and anthocyanin in wine-producing grapes. The study authors write:
“In particular, the fruitiness, aroma, acidity, and relatively low alcohol content, characteristics of white wines in (former) cool climate wine regions, is expected to be negatively affected by high ripening temperatures”
Anita Oberholster, a viticulture specialist at the University of California, Davis who studies the effects of the environment on wine grapes, tells Inverse that the biosynthesis of many compounds requires a careful balance of warm days and cool nights.
Anthocyanins are pigments that give wine grapes their color and are not typically associated with taste or scent but can affect the texture of the drink.
“However, during red wine aging, anthocyanins do contribute to mouthfeel as they are incorporated into polymeric pigments and give round, velvety mouthfeel to wine,” Oberholster says.
In a 2020 study, scientists at the University of Exeter found nighttime temperatures are increasing faster than daytime temperatures, placing high-quality grapes used in our favorite wines in increasing jeopardy.
“People in Napa Valley are worried about the structure of Cabernet potentially changing in 50 years as it gets a little hotter, and it may well be too hot for the grid to produce the right balance of the sugars and acids,” Philip Crews, a wine researcher and distinguished professor in the biochemistry department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, tells Inverse.
“Too much sun can cause sunburn and loss of fruit, as well as overly jammy, raisiny flavors, decreasing complexity,” Oberholster says, stating that hotter temperatures may also alter the color development of wine.
But Crews says wildfire smoke may actually pose a bigger threat to wine grapes than warming temperatures in the immediate future, especially as climate change leads to more frequent wildfires in wine-growing regions of northern California. Zinfandel grapes, as Crews reported in a recent paper, could be particularly impacted.
Wildfire smoke exposes grapes to compounds known as volatile phenols, which can lead to “smoke taint,” which affects the taste and aroma of wine. Researchers in a 2015 article in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research describe smoke taint as imparting “undesirable sensory characters described as smoky, burnt, ash, smoky bacon, medicinal and ashtray” in wine.
According to Crews and Oberholster, volatile phenols become bound to sugary compounds in wine known as glycosides.
“Most people have enzymes in their saliva that can release these bound compounds, releasing the ashy flavors in the mouth,” Oberholster explains. But significant levels of smoke taint are needed to alter the taste of wine, Oberholster says, so it’s thus difficult to know which grapes will be impacted. Crews says wine growers will conduct sensory and taste evaluations to prevent smoke-tainted wine from going out to consumers.
When it comes to smoke taint, it’s not clear whether or how wine growers will be able to adapt to increased wildfire smoke.
“We are currently still investigating ways for farmers to protect their grapes against smoke,” Oberholster says. “There is currently no known way to do this significantly.”
But we could adapt wine to warmer temperatures. A 2020 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that increasing the diversity of cultivars — plant varieties bred for specific reasons — in winemaking can reduce crop losses by up to a third under global warming of four degrees Celsius.
Oberholster adds that certain practices like using canopy crops and shading to help grapes withstand drought will also be helpful in the coming years. Farmers can also change the timing of their harvest to avoid hotter temperatures and maintain consistent taste, but that’s not a foolproof plan.
“You can harvest earlier to control sugar and thus alcohol content, but if ripening is too fast, you do not see the evolution [of] flavors that you may want,” Oberholster expands.
Scientists have identified wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, that are better able to adapt to heat; so we may see a shift toward certain wines over time.
The Inverse analysis — Ultimately, experts say the future flavors of our favorite beverages are still up in the air.
Klaus Hubacek, a professor in science, technology, and society at the University of Groningen, tells Inverse that wine and beer producers have been able to create more “standardized products” independent of annual environmental conditions due to technological developments.
“Given that climate effects will vary and new regions [will] become available for production and others less so, it is hard to say how the overall picture will change in terms of suitability for the production of wine,” Hubacek says.