3 Oct 2011

The Globalised Terroir


Joe, the Thirsty Pilgrim, is again talking about this terroir and beer thing, something I'm not a fan of, really.

At first I saw in it just another nonsensical parallel forcibly drawn between beer and wine, but after reading a bit more about it, I realised that the thing goes further than that. However, and although some of their arguments are quite solid, I get the impression that the "terroirists" (the similarity with "terrorist" is entirely casual) are not taking into account some of the fundamental aspects of the very nature of beer, and they are nothing new, they've always been there.

It is true that wine and beer have many things in common, but at the same time, they are enormously different (and no, I'm not talking about the bollocks of wine = pretentious+snobbish, beer=the everyman's drink. Beer can be as pretentious and snobbish as wine, and wine can be as much the everyman's drink as beer, if the people that sell and talk about it so want).

To begin with, beer doesn't suffer the geographical and seasonal limitations of wine, its fermentables can be grown almost anywhere, can also be stored for relatively long and transported great distances. Beer is also very flexible, if there isn't enough barley, another grain can be used, no hops? no problem.

Another big difference is that beer isn't the result of a mostly natural process, it has always been an "industrial" product resulting from human ingenuity. Thanks to this, and the flexibility I mention above, beer, in many ways, has been a sort of mirror of the evolution of our civilisation, and if Patrick McGovern is right, and people did start practicing agriculture so they could have a reliable source of grain to make beer, our favourite beverage might have even triggered it.

What I want to say with all this is that those "traditional" styles that the terroirists use as example of their arguments weren't only the product of the available raw materials and indigenous yeast strains of a given place and age, but also a product of their times.

During most of history, brewers, just like every other average person, didn't leave the small worlds they lived very often, and knew very little about what happened beyond them. They also learnt their trade from Master Brewers who lived in those very same small worlds. It is tempting to assume that there wasn't much room for innovation, let alone experimentation, specially in a commercial activity like brewing. And yet, some of those very same brewers had no problem with adopting new ingredients or processes introduced from abroad, if they considered them convenient. A great example of this is the introduction of hops in England.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but our world is very, very different now. It's a world where an American company can outsource their call centre to India, a Graphic Designer can take jobs from a Spanish agency without leaving his or her home in suburban Buenos Aires, an English chef can open a restaurant in Prague where he serves perhaps the best Asian food in the country and someone from Norway, Australia or Chile can be reading this post, which is a response to another one written by a gringo living in Costa Rica, during their commute, while sipping a beer at a pub or  while enjoying their Italian holiday. And just like they have done throughout history, beer and brewing are reflecting this new reality.

Today anyone can learn the trade by trial and error in their garage or cellar using recipes downloaded from the internet and setting up a brewery isn't a lot more difficult than setting up any other sort of company. Once done with the beaurocracy, the technology can be bought in the Czech Republic, the malts can be sourced from Germany, the hops from New Zealand, a strain of Belgian yeasts can be ordered and, eventually, a collaboration with an English brewer can be arranged.

So, that Saison from Denmark, that IPA from Belgium, that Trippel from the US or the Czech Stout that I'm drinking now aren't "...beer without a home, an orphan, a delicious flavor without roots, trapped in a glass...", as Don Feinberg says in one of the excerpts from his essay reproduced in Joe's blog. Just like the first hopped beers in England, these are also a product of their time. Yes, their history is still very young, and it's yet to be seen how long it'll last, but the same could have been said about the Pilsner Lager 150 years ago. As for home, they do have one, you can call it "The Global Terroir", if you wish.

Na Zdraví!

10 comments:

  1. This discussion would be much easier if the word "terroir" weren't included because of the baggage that comes with it.

    But the fact is that Cascade hops grown in Oregon will taste/smell different than Cascade hops grown in Washington, in New Zealand, in England, in Argentina (the the last case because they are crap).

    If it brewer chooses to let the hops express themselves (as opposed to blending them with other varieties or perhaps Cascades from 3 continents - as Sam Adams is doing) then they may reflect that place.

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  2. Stan, I agree with you on the choice of word. Not so much on the rest, though. Firstly, because quality in this case is not so much of an issue (and I agree on what you say about the Cascade from Argentina), you can have the best hops and still make crap beer. And about Sam Adams, isn't it a good example of a beer with "global terroir"? In a way, those beers aren't too different from those Ales from Scotland that used mostly Saaz hops back in the 19th century (though it's left to be seen what the intentions of the brewer are in this case)

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  3. I should have been clearer. I don't think Sam Adams Third Voyage, the new 3 Cascade beers, expresses **** (a place holder for the word better for beer than terroir).

    And I agree that there's a difference between saying "we use the best quality hops" and that the beers are intended to express a sense of the place where those hops are grown. There are few of the latter.

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  4. One might ask whether this globalization of beer production is ultimately a good thing for the consumer. It threatens to homogenize beer. For example, a number of breweries in Europe are beginning to make beers that clearly target American consumers (beers that are extreme or very hoppy). Even here in Tokyo where I live, the three most well-regarded pubs are awash in American West Coast IPAs or Japanese clones of American West Coast IPAs. Even my local homebrew shop is full of American hops with no domestic product to speak of.

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  5. It's a good point, but on the other hand, that's nothing new, either. A good example of this are the Porters (and even some PA's) that were brewed at some point in Germany, Scandinavia, and the Baltic States CZ and Slovakia, eventually, they became Baltic Porter, but at first they were inspired by a style that was popular at the time in another country that was exported to the region.

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  6. I'd suggest that we separate terroir - which would come from the characteristics of water and local ingredients in certain places - and authenticity to a tradition, which I think is more what Feinberg and company are speaking of.

    A brewery could have terroir, but it would be one that really is limited by its geography (as is the case with first growth bordeaux, for example). Being an inheritor of an authentic tradition, though, allows for truly Belgian style beer in, say, upstate New York.

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  7. Greg, there is a reason why I avoid relating the concept of "tradition" with the idea of "terroir", and it's because, if you look at history, traditions aren't something immutable, they change, evolve, or even disappear. Today, Czech brewers speak about "tradition" as a cornerstone of their trade, but the truth is that in the long, long, long history of brewing in the Czech lands, all these "traditional" beers, starting with the most "traditional" of them all, Pilsner Urquell, are a relatively new thing. I don't believe anyone here would have said, at the end of the 19th century, that lager beers were "traditional".

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  8. Oh, absolutely. And we need only look to Ron Pattinson to know how many "traditions" we take for granted are actually modern myth.

    But is terroir immutable? Whether we're talking about cigars, wine or beer, all of these things are made by people, and even if we assume the natural and geographic qualities that affect flavor don't change over time, the ways we process and use those flavors definitely do.

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  9. Of course that terroir, to a certain extent, isn't immutable, process and tastes change and so do the products that are made with the former in order to please the latter, but if we are speaking about wine, there is a certain immutability (though perhaps that's not the right word). Wine making starts well before the first grapes are fermenting, it starts when choosing the place for the vineyard. That's not so much the case with beer, specially if your brewery isn't using well or spring water. I can start a brewery in my garage, and if things go well and the company grows, I can move to another town and continue there as if nothing had happened.

    The point I want to make with all this, regardless of my personal feeling towards the idea "beer terroir", is that I don't think you can say that an IPA made in Belgium doesn't have "terroir" or whatever, only because it doesn't fit into the current "beer mainstream".

    Ron Pattison told me once that Dreher in the mid 19th Century tried to start brewing Pale Ale, because they saw it at the time as a good option for industrialising their breweries. For some reason, it didn't work out and soon after artificial refrigeration made lager a better option. Imagine how different the beer landscape everywhere would be today if Dreher had succeeded, or what if people in Bohemia hadn't liked the Pilsner Lager or if Bass and Alsopp hadn't been successful businesswise with their IPA's, etc.

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