The California Drought Is Changing Cocktail Hours Worldwide

If you haven’t heard, California is thirsty. We’re switching to grassless lawns, facing mandatory water restriction, and fighting the worst drought in California history by dropping 96 million shade balls into a 175-acre reservoir in Los Angeles (to little avail).

And still, things aren’t looking up: the LA Times recently provided an infographic containing 192 drought maps that collectively spelled out how the chaotic weather patterns of climate change have effected the state from December 2011 through August of 2015– stressful statistics not just for California, but also the rest of the country.

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Half of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts consumed in the U.S. today are grown in California. The state also produces 90 percent of all wine made in the U.S. wine, and its craft beer industry is valued at an estimated 6.5 billion dollars. As the machinery of the state’s flailing economy continues to churn, farmers are being asked to produce the same quality crop with less water and shorter growing seasons, and this, in turn, has the potential to effect cocktail hours worldwide. So before pouring your favorite glass of California wine, cooling off with a cold beer, or mixing a jalapeño tequila gimlet on a lovely summer’s eve, consider pausing to question how some of your favorite crops are coping.

On a recent foray into the California cocktail scene, GC spoke with Jared Brandt, wine maker extraordinaire and co-owner (alongside his wife, Tracey Brandt) of Donkey & Goat in Berkeley, California. We also tracked down Kirk Agostini, Founder and CEO of AbreOjos Tequila, and Brand Ambassador Chris “Justice” Boster for a conversation about the way desert plants respond to shifting climate. (The AbreOjos distillery and agave fields are based in Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico and offer an intriguing entree into the ways in which climate change and drought are affecting the spirits most people typically drink in the summer.) Finally, we tracked down Evan Weinberg, co-owner and Head Brewer at Cismontane Brewing Co. in Rancho Santa Margarita, California– a project he helms with Ross Stewart. Each of these artisans has a unique perspective on the process of making spirits and aperitifs, and the ways in which traditional conventions of beer and wine-making are shifting to reflect California’s new global reality: the worst drought in our nation’s history.

Library images for Donkey and Goat Winery

Dry Farming Wine

Hand harvested, sustainably farmed, and minimum effective SO2 levels were all buzzwords that attracted me to Donkey & Goat, where the integrity of the soil is evident from grape to glass. 30 percent of their harvest is from Anderson Valley, in Mendocino (a traditionally cool climate), 60 percent is from El Dorado, and rest of their grapes are grown in Napa, where they are organically managed. What’s unique about Donkey & Goat is that they find places where the soil and climate make the wine– rather than imposing a variety of grape that is ill-suited to the region.

Dry farming, a method that allows for the vines to grow strong without relying on water, is an essential component to Donkey & Goat’s production. “In Napa, the first irrigation system was implored in ’76, and today most vineyards are watered,” owner Jared Brandt told us. But as vineyards continue to receive cutbacks for their water use, their grapes will need to undergo a detox of sorts from the 30-40 gallons per vine that most grape-growers use during the daily growing season. Excess water usage causes grapes to ripen faster and can result in the death of vines. According to Brandt, slowly weaning the vines off water to get the roots to grow deeper has become a necessity.

An additional change that Brandt has seen in the industry is timing. “We’ll be done picking this year by September 15th. That’s a six week change [in production],” he adds soberingly. “If climate change continues, let’s say the Bay Area gets five degrees warmer on average, that will increase your sugar production which doesn’t necessarily make for better flavors,” he continues. “You can even make a strong argument that it leads to worse flavors.”

Brandt told us that we can expect two changes to occur due to climate change. First: “new regions of wine growing areas, meaning that some of the historically great areas will lose their greatness,” and Second: “there will likely be more manipulation in the winery to make great wine.”

He leaves us with the story of Pliny the Elder who, in 200 AD, wrote that the very best wine is from regions where the grapes struggle to ripen. “Vines will produce endless grapes, they are the plant equivalent of rabbits. So you need to have a place where they will struggle some or you’ll get too much crop and no flavor. The flavor is very linked to the stress of the vine and the crop load and if there’s just too big of a crop load and no stress (because it’s warm) then it will be a flavorless grape.”


Monitering Tequila’s Sugar Content

Unlike grapes and barley, agave cannot be harvested annually. For AbreOjos Tequila, the weber blue agave plant reaches its sugar peak between 10-12 years old. While the plant thrives on a hot and dry climate, too much heat can actually cause the plant to develop with less sugar and a higher alcohol percentage—salt please!

Chris Boster, a brand ambassador for AbreOjos, notes that their distillery has been around for over 100 years and due to continuous testing for sugar content, their quality and taste has not been compromised by climate change. “Agave is grown in open fields and has been ever since tequila began, so currently no one in the industry is using shade cooling systems [to compensate for the heat],” Founder Kirk Agostini explained. All the plants really need is some extra hand-holding as they mature.

“The flavor of the nectar is determined by the maturity of the plant. Similar to a banana, if eaten too soon it is more bitter than sweet. So before our agave is used for production, the sugar content is tested to ensure the correct ripeness. Our agave is also grown naturally, with no fertilizers or pesticides, and we feel this produces a higher quality tequila. The soil in Tequila is located at the base of a non-active volcano and [remains] rich in nutrients,” he continued, siting his company’s lucky circumstances. While most companies rely on commercial yeast to speed up the fermentation process, AbreOjos has stayed old school, relying on natural yeast in the air. While the alcohol takes longer to ferment using this process, it supposedly yields a better tasting product. Because it takes about one agave plant to make six 750-ml bottles of tequila, AbreOjos plans ahead by growing fields of agave and carefully tending to them as they mature. Fortunately, tequila is ultimately a “desert spirit”, historically cultivated and produced in regions where it’s hot. For now, the industry won’t have to change much to accommodate the shifting climate zones– but that doesn’t mean it won’t have to make these considerations in the future.


Sourcing Barley for Beer

Silver, Bronze, and Gold awards from the Del Mar Craft Brewers competition hang proudly on the wall as Cismontane Brewing Co. owner Evan Weinberg fills me in on the 101 of beer making. For those who aren’t in the know, it goes like this: “the grain used to make beer eats the starch and sugar to ferment your yeast. Grain is a huge portion of the flavor of the beer, then of course there’s hops. That adds a little bit of bitterness to what would ultimately be malt liquor. It also imparts aroma and flavor. The yeast is the organism that actually consumes the sugar and converts it into alcohol and carbon dioxide,” he tells us concisely.

The struggle for beer with respect to climate change has to do with what makes it so desirable— barley. Cismontane sources this crop from all over the world– the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Germany, and Belgium. Different varieties of barley are designed for different kinds of beer, as less rain and higher temperatures diminishes farmer’s ability to grow barley. “Where people are growing [various crops] today is starting to change, and we’re seeing prices go up for barley. Hops are even more sensitive to shifting climate patterns and we’ve seen a significant impact on yield, due to a lack of rain, and that has driven prices way up,” he adds.

As for how the drought is affecting the industry, breweries based in Northern California (popular names like Lagunitas come to mind) have already been capped. Their solution to that problem is out sourcing their carbon- and water-intensive production warehouses, including plans to build a brewery in Chicago in order to meet market demand. “A lot of breweries are moving out that way, like Sierra Nevada, Stone, and several other brewers that are in the 50,000-plus barrel range,” says Weinberg. “We’re in the 2,500-barrel range, so it’s not a huge deal for us, but eventually our water prices are going to go up… that’s why people are building out of state.”

As if water usage weren’t already a concern, another struggle for the beer industry is transportation— beer doesn’t travel well. Budweiser, a multinational company that has become a standard for mechanization in the beer world, has set up breweries all over the country. “That’s because of the cost of shipping and production,” Weinberg adds. While raw material for beer may take one truck load to ship, if you add water (which is 2 gallons per fluid oz) the mass of that freight can quickly exceed 25 truck loads. Beer also needs to stay refrigerated throughout the entire shipping process. “That’s a big misconception about beer,” Weinberg notes. “If you’re going to the store and buying beer off the shelf, then it’s not stable. It’s an organic product and there’s a lot of protein and sugar in it…. That’s what organisms love to eat!”

So in addition to breweries creating more sustainable methods (which means smaller facilities and more of them as they expand) will barley ever be replaced? “There are alternatives — we just brewed a beer for our 5th anniversary that has five different grains in it: barley, corn, rice, spelt, and rye. It gives the beer a nice body, but barley really has it all: the husk, the enzymes, the starch… it really is what beer was designed on and around.”

Since 1950, climate change has been a constant concern for farmers and manufacturers of farm-sourced products like beer, wine, and spirits. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is at an all-time high, and addressing our shifting climate– 96 million shade balls notwithstanding– hinges on creating a balance between our life in the present and our knowledge of how that presence will one day impact our future. Today, climate change is starting to encroach on our favorite drinks— which makes it all the more important to find out where they come from and how they are honoring the soil that ultimately brings our cocktails to life. 

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