Terroir: The Concept of Terroir in Beer and Wine

Terroir.  To the old world, this word is the essence of fine wines.  Vineyards across the globe preach the wonders of their terroir, while scholars and common consumers still struggle to define the word in its entirety.  To some, “Terroir is… a spatial and ecological concept that ‘links together the actors, their histories, their social organizations, their activities, and, most importantly, their agricultural practices’” (Demossier 686), but even this definition seems to lack some of the subtle and complex notions that are included in the concept of terroir.  Terroir and all of its complexity is a growing concept not only in the wine industry, where it has been developed and preached for generations, but also in the brewing industry, and in agricultural industries everywhere.  As the concept grows, however, many within their industries struggle more and more to define what terroir actually is to their individual product.

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When considering terroir, a key question to ask is whether the terroir of one product is the same thing as the terroir of another product.  Can the terroir of wine, for example, be the same as the terroir of beer, even though they are grown from different plants?  And what about all of the different ingredients and processes in beer making compared to those in wine making?  Does that not make terroir a completely different thing when defined in terms of beer than when it is defined in terms of wine?

Wine Spectator, a premier magazine in the world of wine, defines the terroir of wine as follows:  “A term describing the interaction of soil, climate, topography and grape variety in a specific site, imprinting the wine and making each wine from a specific site distinct.” (“Glossary: Letter T”).  In this sense, the terroir of a wine is very dependent on where the grapes for the wine were grown.

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Beer, by contrast, is far more complex in terms of where its terroir originates.  In an article in the magazine, All About Beer, Ken Weaver captures this point when he quotes Almanac Brewing Company brewer Jesse Friedman.  “Beer is traditionally made with dried ingredients that can easily be transported and stored,” says Friedman.  “The result is that it really divorces beer from a sense of place and a sense of, to pull from wine vocabulary… terroir” (34).  Much of the beer world, it seems, has become a multinational entity that is made up of ingredients from all around the globe, and in this way has distanced itself from the concept of the growing field providing the terroir for the product.  Furthermore, beer is produced from at least two key plants, hops and barley, which are most commonly not grown side by side.  Because of this, making a beer from one specific growing field, as is done in the premier wine world, is a very difficult and near infeasible task for a brewer to commit to.

In the last four years, however, American craft brewers, like Jesse Friedman, have begun to consider the growing field terroir of their beer.  Friedman’s Almanac Brewing Company and those breweries like Almanac attempt to source all of their ingredients from local growing fields.  And while this “brewery structure” does not usually own the growing fields, it does tend to impart a local spin on the beer, which can be interpreted as the expression of local terroir.

Almanac Brewing Company is joined by breweries like Throwback Brewery in Hampton, NH, who recently bought a farm to grow their ingredients, and whose goal, according to their website, “is to acquire most of our ingredients (such as hops, wheat, barley, fruit, and spices) from local farmers” (“About”).  In Yakima Valley, one of the worlds most noted hop growing regions, a longtime hop growing family has even started their own brewery, Bale Breaker Brewing Company or BBBC.  BBBC uses hops grown from the family’s hop growing fields in their beers, and in this way is instilling the beers with their family farm’s terroir (Kaczmarek).

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Some of the big guns of the craft beer world are also jumping on the “home grown ingredients” bandwagon, and with their larger budgets, they are going the extra mile and starting their own farms to grow their ingredients.  Sierra Nevada, a longtime leader in the American craft beer movement, has developed a special series of beers known as their “Estate Ales,” made entirely from hops and barley grown at their brewery.  Rogue Ales, another big craft brewery, has also purchased hop and barley farms near their breweries and has begun a series of beers only using ingredients from those farms.  Their series is known as Rogue Farms, and has even featured a pumpkin beer brewed with pumpkins grown on their farms (Burningham).

The growth of local ingredient beers and breweries is an interesting development in the craft beer world, but is still relatively new and underappreciated by most of the beer world.  Such an estate and local ingredient requirement is not available to all brewers, and while that will hinder certain types of “local breweries” from cropping up in certain areas, it will not stop most breweries.  Even if a brewery is completely outside of the prime growing belt for a specific type of beer, they still can still make a fantastic brew with imported ingredients.  If someone really wanted to, they could brew amazing beer at the North Pole, and all they would have to do is import the ingredients.  In this sense, the growing field is only a factor in the terroir of a beer if the brewer wants it to be.

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On his blog, Shut up Barclay Perkins, beer historian Robert Pattinson makes an interesting observation of the beer industry.  “There’s a lot of resistance in the beer world to the idea of terroir.  The concept that certain beers belong to a specific location,” Pattinson writes. “And it’s not just from big brewers, wanting to shift production around as it suits them. New brewers like to think they can brew any style in world, no matter where their brewery happens to be located” (“Terroir”).

In the olden days of beer, the geographical location and the growing fields around a brewery seem to have had more of an impact on beer produced.  In England, no one quite had the water character of Burton-Trent, and so no one could make ales that tasted like a Burton ale unless they were actually from Burton. Similarly, in America, there was a lack of cheap old world barley, so brewers started adding adjuncts like corn to their brews to lower the cost of the grain bill and ease their access to the needed ingredients with fermentable sugars.

With the technological advancements of the last two centuries, however, an American craft brewer can brew a damn near clone of a Burton Ale or any other beer simply by tampering with the chemical composition of the brewing water and importing the right ingredients.  Similarly, if a brewery in Burton-on-Trent wanted to brew an American Adjunct Lager, all they would need to do is order the ingredients.

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This technological revolution seems to be sweeping away the old and rustic concept of “brew with what is locally available to you,” except for in one key ingredient of beer.  Yeast.  The magic of both wine and beer.  In yeast, brewers (and many winemakers too) are discovering an ingredient that is unique to themselves and their brewery, and nowhere is yeast more prominently displayed than in the production of the lambics of Belgium.  Jeff Sparrow, in his book Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer’s Yeast, describes the terroir of yeast when he says;

The character of wild beers arises not so much from the ingredients but from the environment of the brewery: the air, the walls, the wood, and the casks.  A unique combination of environmental conditions… present in every place where beer is produced determines the character of wild beer.  Lambic brewers will tell you “you can’t” [brew a lambic beer outside of Payottenland (native home of the lambic beer)] because of the terroir of the region and the individual brewery.  (Sparrow 6).

In this way, terroir also has a place in wild beer (beer left open to the air after brewing in order to inoculate it with wild yeasts, i.e. lambic, among other styles) through the brewery itself.

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In wine, the vineyard in which the grapes grow is arguably the most crucial part of the wine’s terroir.  Similarly, in wild beer the most crucial part of the essence and terroir of the beer comes from the brewery itself and the wild yeasts and bacteria that thrive there.  In wild brewing, in fact, the yeast and bacteria becomes the main character of the beer through the esters and acids that they produce.  This, of course, does a disservice to the farms that grew the beer’s hops and barley, and to the well that pumped the beer’s water, but in a wild beer, yeast and bacteria character is the desired taste and the rest is just there for nuance and balance.  In a way, the brewery is the vineyard and its sustainability of desirable wild yeast and bacteria is the brewery’s “sun exposure,” and other variables found in grape growing.

Of course, wild beer is not all beer, but even non-wild brewers have begun to grow their own variants of brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae).  John Kimmich, head brewer of The Alchemist Cannery in Waterbury, VT, and brewer of one of the most lauded beers in the world, Heady Topper, developed his own yeast strain, Conan, over years of cultivation and brewing. Today, the Conan yeast strain is a revered part of The Alchemist’s terroir and mystique.  Still, yeast character isn’t the goal in all beers, and that makes it partially inaccurate to call it the main factor in the terroir of beer.

Overall, it seems as though a beer’s terroir comes down to the specific beer being discussed.   Is it a wild beer?  Then the terroir lies mostly in the yeast and the air of the brewery.  Is it a hop-forward ale?  Then the terroir lies mostly where the hops were grown and how they were added to the beer.  Is it a malt-forward beer?  Then the terroir lies mostly in where the grains were grown and malted, and how they were mashed into the beer.  Were all three ingredients equally important in the beer?  Well then you have a beer that’s terroir lies in all of those categories and more.

Terroir in beer is not a simple thing, but nor is terroir in wine.  Each product has its own list of complexities involved in crafting it.  As the beer and wine industries move forward towards a more technological tomorrow where anything can be made anywhere, it becomes more and more important for producers to define what makes their product unique to all other producers of the style.

 

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Work Cited

“About.” Throwback Brewery. Throwback Brewery, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2013.

 

“Glossary: Letter T.” Wine Spectator. Wine Spectator Online, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2013.

 

Barham, E. “Translating ‘terroir’: the global challenge of French AOC labelling.” Journal of Rural Studies. 2003: 131. Web. April 24, 2013

 

Burningham, Lucy. “Reign of Terroir.” Wall Street Journal – Eastern Edition 26 Jan. 2013: D4. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Apr. 2013.

 

Demossier, Marion. “Beyond Terroir: Territorial Construction, Hegemonic Discourses, And French Wine Culture.” Journal Of The Royal Anthropological Institute 17.4 (2011): 685-705. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

 

Kaczmarek, Andrew. “Brewers’ Banter: Bale Breaker Brewing Company Opens on Yakima Hop Farm.” CraftBeer.com. Brewer’s Association, 17 Apr. 2013. Web. 23 Apr. 2013. <

 

Pattinson, Ronald. “Terroir.” Web log post. Shut up about Barclay Perkins. N.p., 27 Oct. 2008. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

 

Sparrow, Jeff. Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewer’s Yeast. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005. Print.

 

Weaver, Ken. “The Perfect Fit.” All About Beer. May 2013: 30-35. Print.

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