More about beer from a place; local, if you will

First, a bit of disclosure. I own the domain name www.beerterroir.com (you don’t need to go look; you’ll just end up back here). Collecting domain names is cheaper than owning pets.

DRAFT Magazine has posted the story I wrote for the July-August issues they call “The dirt on terroir.” A little science, a little history, a pinch of opinion and philosophy (not all mine). It’s something I’ve spent a lot of time looking into, and might just be getting started.

I’ve got a lot to say. However, we’re out the door in the morning and I won’t be back for more than three weeks. A little family holiday; a lot of hops. Hop growers, hop breeders, hop processors, hop scientists, brewers, museums, research facilities. I might have to write a book. So things will likely be quiet around here. (There goes the Wikio ranking.)

I’ll leave you with something I wrote for All About Beer Magazine a few years ago. Wrote it sitting in a hotel room in Bamberg, in fact.

December 2008

We are in the midst of a Year of Eating and Drinking Local. Were it going to result in a book – though it won’t – we might call it “If it’s a blueberry ale, this must be Maine” or “If it tastes sour and salty, this must be Leipzig.”

Our family adventure will, in fact, last more than a year, and it wasn’t planned around food and drink. Even if it were, most days the diary entry wouldn’t be about beer. One example: the expansive produce market that occurs daily in Split, Croatia, as impressive a scene as any Czech beer hall. We bought fabulous bread, fresh vegetables and brandy aged on walnut shells (How strong? “Strong!” said the man who made and sold it in a one-liter screw-top bottle for 50 kuna).

My wife, Daria Labinsky, our daughter, Sierra, and I left our New Mexico home last May, first heading to Alaska and eventually to Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. As I file this from Bamberg, Germany, in mid-December, we’re quite near the end of 15 weeks in Europe. By the time we return to New Mexico in August we will have visited 17 countries, 9 Canadian provinces and territories, 49 states and Washington, D.C. (Before you ask – can’t drive to Hawaii.)

Why the interest in eating and drinking local? Beyond the obvious pleasures, and a sense that local is somehow better, there’s little that reveals more about regional culture. To understand how Italians feel about food, you shouldn’t eat in a restaurant near Rome’s Coliseum. Head instead to a small town to the south and visit a pizzeria where pizza arrives as the fourth course of a feast, coming directly after buffalo mozzarella oozing with milk.

And to appreciate the magic of New Glarus Brewing beers in Wisconsin, stop at the first gas station after you enter the state and discover that six-packs of Spotted Cow and Fat Squirrel are cold and ready to go. Or head to the town of New Glarus itself and Roy’s Market, which has a large sign out front declaring Roy’s “Proudly Serves All New Glarus Co. Brewing Products, Only Available in Wisconsin.”

The New Glarus local success story has been repeated enough, but basically Dan and Deb Carey started their brewery in a space designed to produce 8,000 barrels a year. Fifteen years later, after squeezing 65,000 barrels out of that facility in 2007, New Glarus moved into a brand-spanking-new, $21 million brewery that sits on a hilltop overlooking the town. Without selling a drop of beer beyond the borders of Wisconsin.

Spotted Cow serves as a perfect representative of the brewery not only because it accounts for half its sales. Dan Carey created the beer first for himself, after wondering what Wisconsin farmhouse beers would have tasted like in the nineteenth century. He uses indigenous ingredients such as corn, includes a bit of unmalted barley grown on land the brewery owns, and leaves the beer unfiltered. It’s designed to be consumed ice cold and tastes like, well, Wisconsin.

Local can be complicated. I seem to find questions more easily than answers. Does any old beer brewed “in town” qualify as local? Do we think more highly of local beers because they are “green,” because they are fresher, because breweries are locally owned and the profits stay in town, because they use local ingredients? Can you still be a local brewery if ship your beer across the country?

A conversation early on with Alaskan Brewing co-founders Geoff and Marcy Larson provided the first answer. Alaskans love Alaskan Brewing. Neon signs brighten most bar windows. Souvenir shops that cater to cruise ships prominently display Alaskan T-shirts (a local grocery sells an Alaskan T and hat package). Locals wear Alaskan sweatshirts.

But Alaskan Brewing sells 70 percent of what it brews outside of Alaska. Big state; not a lot of people. So I felt a wave of paranoia sweep over me when Marcy asked, “Should we be selling our beers down south?” (Down south being Alaskan for the lower 48 states.) I knew she wasn’t seeking my approval, that this was a question about the integrity of their beer far from home, but still I gulped.

I thought about her question during the next several days, when we hiked to an overlook above the Mendenhall Glacier and when I was negotiating “frost heave” along the Alaskan Highway. I realized that Alaskan beers could only come from Alaska, and not just the ones using local ingredients. The tension between man and wilderness you feel everywhere is also part of the balance in each beer.

So now there’s at least one thing I’m sure of. Local beer comes from a particular place, and local beer tastes of that place.

, ,

17 Responses to More about beer from a place; local, if you will

  1. Steve July 26, 2011 at 11:28 am #

    Bringing things back around — via Bamberg, New Glarus is now brewing Two Women Lager; named for the 2 women who head up New Glarus Brewing and Weyermann Malting (Bamberg).

    The beer uses Weyermann’s Moravian malt and I have to say that NG has hit the mark for that sweet, bready character you seem to find only in fresh Bavarian lagers.

    A mix of terroir that certainly makes me smile!

  2. Stan Hieronymus July 26, 2011 at 11:32 am #

    Drank the last bottle I brought back from Wisconsin last night. Great expression of Mittelfruh.

  3. Steve July 26, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    Was that the new incarnation or the old one Stan?

    Dan replied to a thread at BA that they mellowed out the recipe a little for the now year-round label.

    And if it was the newer incarnation… how’s come you didn’t say you were driving by!

    • Stan Hieronymus July 26, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

      Now I feel bad. But it was a mad dash in and out of Milwaukee to talk hops with very sharp people at MillerCoors.

  4. Steve July 26, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    They use hops at MillerCoors? ;)

    And here — I thought they were based in Chicago..?

    Next time, sir — a mad dash between Milwaukee and St. Louis has to be neck-breaking, you could use a rest stop!

  5. TimC July 26, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    In the DRAFT article, I couldn’t help but notice a glaring omission from the suggested beers. Not a specific brewery or beer, but an ingredient!

    I have to nominate two local candidates: Wormtown Mass Whole and Cambridge Brewing Valley Girl, both made with Massachusetts grown grain malted by Valley Malt in Hadley, MA. Mass Whole also qualifies for a local hops suggestion.

  6. Pivní Filosof July 27, 2011 at 2:47 am #

    Although I agree with the general idea, I don’t like the use of the word “terroir” very much. It works with wine, but it doesn’t quite do so with beer.

  7. Steve July 27, 2011 at 5:50 am #

    “It works with wine, but it doesn’t quite do so with beer.”

    If based on nothing other than some of the German-style beers brewed in the US, with US grown ingredients that miss the mark of fresh beer I’ve had in Germany, I’d say the term works with beer.

    Throw the different varieties of hops into the mix and terroir gets even more complicated, but the definition still fits.

  8. Jeff Alworth July 27, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Stan, godspeed. I planned on not writing my blog as frequently, but I found it was a key goof-off I need to keep sane (which was why I started it in the first place). I do hope you pursue that terroir thing, because I harbor a suspicion that it matters a great deal in hop growing. How else to explain the differences in Yakima and Willamette Valley hops? (Okay, I can think of other reasons, but terroir’s in the running.) Also, why do US Saaz not taste like Czech Saaz–but Sterlings do?

    I’m depending on you, man.

  9. Joe Stange July 28, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    “It works with wine, but it doesn’t quite do so with beer.”

    I think it can work with beer, but it comes with a lot of romantic, polemical, wine-soaked, Francophone baggage. Which explains my love/hate attitude toward the word.

    Meanwhile we have beaten the word “local” into the ground.

    The kicker on Stan’s article is “Don’t call it terroir. Call it beer from a place.”

    I think “place” and “sense of place” are phrases I can work with as a writer, and no more pretentious than the subject matter.

  10. Todd July 28, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    Dirt, terroir, local,,,,isn’t this a potential for microclimates around the world with similar attributes to unite instead of divide? What if ,,say 5,,different microclimates and everything add up so that a given crop, perhaps hops,,,all come out similar? Perhaps they might all be a bit different,,but if they come out so similar,,would that be a “global” terroir,,,or type,,,or some kind of name,,based on environmental factors?

  11. Steve July 29, 2011 at 6:06 am #

    “I think “place” and “sense of place” are phrases I can work with as a writer, and no more pretentious than the subject matter.”

    No more pretentious, but sort of dry for literature — don’t you think?

    I like the tagline on (the above-mentioned) New Glarus’ bottle caps: Drink Indigenous. I can get behind that.

  12. Joe Stange July 29, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    Steve, are you accusing me of literature?

    For some reason that reminds me of the old John Kruk quote, “I’m not an athlete. I’m a professional baseball player.”

  13. Steve July 29, 2011 at 9:08 am #

    “Steve, are you accusing me of literature?”

    Heh — it’s what writers produce, isn’t it? ;)

  14. Mike July 30, 2011 at 3:46 am #

    I’m curious what others think about consuming this local beer in another place – say a place an ocean or two away from the site of production.

  15. Bill July 31, 2011 at 11:07 am #

    I apologize for being late to the discussion. I like “sense of place” better than “terroir” for beer — yes, you can come up with with a definition of terroir that moves beyond soil and climate and water, but for all intents and purposes, that’s what terroir is for wine: you taste specifically where it grows and is made. With beer, if I understand the post and article correctly, you can perhaps taste where it’s made, or maybe you can taste where parts of it were grown… but you don’t get both, because there are next to no breweries that can grow grains and hops where they brew. And for those that do, can you taste it? In wine, terroir isn’t the region of Burgundy, it’s the three acres of grapes that went into a certain bottling– that ripen differently and pick up different flavors than those the next hill over. I don’t think we have that for hops, and definitely not for barley or wheat. Something might taste of the Pacific NW, but it won’t taste of the hill A by the stream B.

    If you use “terroir” in beer terms, you run the risk of what Lew B. has done by calling something “session beer.” You can have the best of intentions, but when you change the meaning, folks invested in the older meaning can rightfully say you’re mistaken.

  16. olllllo August 1, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    I had my first New Glarus Two Women with some home cooked Korean food. Notably in the US, Koreans make use of potatoes and Spam. Is it still Korean?

    http://imgur.com/vbYnV.jpg