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Thursday, 14 January 2010

Terroir for beer?

Its no secret that I like beer but one of my other big passions is wine and whilst I have no interest in persuing a wine writing career, there is one aspect of wine which I believe can be transfered onto beer also. Terroir ,pronounced[tɛʁwaʁ]. Terroir is an extremely important concept when it comes to wine, especially in France where every wine maker has this word on his lips at most times of the day: James May once famously said that if terroir were to be entered into the French-English dictionary it should read 'French- Terroir, English- Cobblers'.

In fact though the term terroir is used to describe the special characteristics that certain factors in production bestow upon the wine, or in this case beer. Some of these factors may be the angle at which the vines face the sun, the type of soil, general weather conditions or farming techniques. Nevertheless I would argue that the concept of terroir can also be applied to beer. 


Think about the amount of very similar beers that you can find from a lot of the great micro's that we have dotted around our country. Some of these session beers that are made by the micro's are infact being replicated by many other small breweries the length and breadth of the country, the difference? Terroir! For example I have tried many beers very similar to Harviestouns Bitter and Twisted, and infact I know many of them use the same malt and hop combinations. However, because Harviestoun use very pure central Scottish water and they make it in their own way and in their own brewery, it tastes MUCH better. The same principle can be used when you think about beers that are brewed under license. The brewers can try as much as they can to replicate the original taste, but 9 times out of 10 it just isn't the same.That is why I am a little wary of Stone Brewing Co's idea of brewing in Europe. If they can manage to create the same great Stone taste that I love, then great, if not I would rather pay the extra money and have the stuff made in the USA. 


So there are many factors which can effect the terroir of a beer. Water quality, quality malt and hops, the brewer and the brewing environment to name a few. One of the best examples of this that I can think of is Brewdogs Atlantic IPA. I am not sure whether I have ever had a beer with such a great strength of terroir.



Image courtesy of Brewdog ©

This beer was aged like the traditional IPA's; at sea. 8 barrels were loaded onto the North Atlantic fishing trawler where Brewdog co-founder James Watt spends a month at a time on. The 8 barrels did not survive though and only 7 made it out into the North Atlantic. 2 months later and Atlantic IPA was ready for the bottling line. I can quite honestly say that drinking Atlantic IPA was a journey, I could litterally taste the salt as I guzzled the bottle. Although it wasnt the best beer I had in 2009, I can probably say that it was the one with the greatest sense of time and place. Many people are still going to argue that this notion of terroir is in fact a lot of old cobblers. It genuinely isnt though. There is a reason why there can be a £100+ price difference between bottles of wine that are grown in adjoining vineyards and it all boils down to this concept of terroir. The product, whether it be beer or wine, adopts heaps of different characteristics from all the different factors it is subjected to. It doesnt matter if this is as subtle as drawing the water from a different county to make it or as extreme as sending it to sea for 2 months, it all makes a difference.

As I argued above, this is why I worry about breweries such as Stone changing their game plan too much. Geography is the most important issue when it comes to terroir and I worry that they may not be able to recreate some of that magic that they previously have done. Im sure they will do well though, even if their beers do not have quite the sense of place they once had. I think place is everything though and I firmly believe that the concept of terroir is a very important one for the beer industry to think about. Maybe thats just because Im a converted wine ponce! Lecture over!

6 comments:

  1. I've not fully read up on Stone's proposals, but surely a better concept for them would be to produce different beers, but following the Stone brewing/creative principles? They already have the strength of brand behind them to market, no need to produce exactly the same named beers, when they can be found over here (albeit limited) in places like Utobeer - instead, either take the same recipes and see how they turn out when brewed in a different plant, in a different country, and either call them something else entirely, or a variation on their 'original' name, or brew new beers/variations on recipes.

    To me, that would give them a new angle, an expanding portfolio, and reasons for US and European beer lovers to seek out both 'sets' of beers, while giving them a firmer foothold in the European craft beer market as they can be seen to play to local raw ingredient strengths without diluting their original USP.

    I agree Terroir is (or should be) an important concept in craft beer production too - I definitely notice a similar note to the beers from Northern Irish breweries, that I don't taste elsewhere. And Scotland has it's own style of slightly-sweet, pinkish ales (like Arran Sunset or Caledonian Tatoo) that I haven't come across elsewhere. I think it's a concept that could be explored a bit more, and probably will as craft brewing evolves and continues to gain respect in the food and drink communities!

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  2. Just in a follow up - the problem I see at the minute with 'beer terroir' is that (generally) everyone uses ingredients from everywhere else. The concept might only develop if microbreweries produce some beers that aim to be truly 'local' - locally-sourced hops, barley, etc. I don't think water really comes into it as it will generally be Burtonised.

    Would love to hear what more qualified people - brewers themselves - think on this?

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  3. I totally agree. As you say the only things that can create a true sense of terroir at the moment are water quality and exactly how its made by the brewer I suppose. Although Burtonised water is a fair enough point, I do think that the water will still make a difference. Not really all of it will be Burtonised too, really only for certain styles. Some beer styles work better with nice soft water.

    As far as Stone Brewing in Europe goes, Im a little in the dark too. I would personally prefer them to make totally different, but similar beers (if that makes any sense), rather than just try to recreate their success in the US. I would still seek out their American Brewed stuff even if the European stuff was good too!

    The idea of local hops and barley is what will truely make beer terroir come to the forefront. As you say at the moment it is much more difficult to give beer the same time and place feel that wine does due to the production process.

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  4. Local hops and barley might be difficult for Scottish Brewers! Water is a very important factor in beer flavournot all brewers Burtonise. Next in importance is the yeast and many brewers keep their own strain which gives them the flavour profile they want. Barley variety and geographical area where it is grown has a marked effect similar for hops. The shape of the fermentation tank alsom has an effect as hydrostatic preasure affects yeast matabolism and the substances it excretes into the wort during fermentation.It is probabaly a more complex picture than for wine.

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  5. Interesting topic! Burton has the water as their terroir but others can copy it by 'Burtonising'. Hops grow differently in different place, plus things like EKG are specific to East Kent, etc. Barley I'm not so sure but I guess it differs slightly. Yeast is relevant, but not quite terroir as it's cultivated in a 'lab' and not part of the unique geography. I'm not so sure if the brewing equipment affects terroir as you could use that equipment anywhere with any ingredients. Likewise, I don't think barrel aging is linked to terroir. For me it's about how the local environment (weather, water, ground) specifically affects the product.

    I would say that terroir and attitude are different. Stone use ingredients from all over to make their beer (so no terroir), but they make it with a specific attitude, which is more important.

    It's a complicated issue but not much is made of it. Many ingredients are grown and shipped all around, so this takes out the very wine-specific notion of terroir. I guess time will tell if terroir becomes more important as a beer topic...

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  6. Brewers yeasts vary, the National Yest Collection hosts thousands of cultures, not all for brewers! Some brewers have used the same yeast for decades. One micro brewer not far from me has there own strain preserved by a company in Nottingham. Yeast and the temperature of fermentation have a major influence on flavour.I am not sure that fits into terrior but if it is not available elsewhere perhaps it does. The Brewers skills, experience and preference are not available elsewhere, so is this terrior?

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