Terroir and the Making of Beer into Wine

In this, the first of many guest posts to come on A Tempest in a Tankard, I’m extremely happy to welcome wine scholar, Kevin D. Goldberg, a friend and fellow German history colleague who has researched and written extensively on the nineteenth-century German wine trade. In his contribution, Goldberg trains his critical lens on a concept taking root in the craft beer industry: terroir. As many drinkers of craft beer know, the craft beer renaissance was touched off by a profound dissatisfaction with the factory-produced and mass-marketed beer brands that dominated North American markets in the wake of the Second World War. As part of the larger counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the nascent craft beer industry eschewed factory-produced food and beverages, and encouraged us to consume locally. But as Goldberg reminds us, this turn to the local is laden with historical baggage. As we craft beer producers and enthusiasts attempt to set ourselves apart from mass-produced beers by grasping at vaguely construed notions of “nature” and “terroir,” Goldberg forces us to ask if our sometimes ambiguous and unreflexive deployment of these terms has obscured what craft beer is: a product of the “talent, ambition, and hard work of generations past of beer makers who fused together technological know-how and gustatory delight.”   

Barley Field (Wiki)

Terroir is dead. Long live terroir. Speaking on behalf of the wine world, let me welcome you to the passé-chic realm of the exotically obvious; that an agricultural product is, in some immeasurable way, influenced by its roots in the world. Tillers of the soil have known this for millennia, pushers of the pen are still trying to sort it all out. Derived from the Latin terra, meaning of the earth or land, terroir has become a kind of commonplace refrain to verbalize the indefinable effects imparted to a wine by the soil and climate of the origin vineyard.

Image via Uncorked Remarks

Image via Uncorked Remarks

Writers and readers of wine magazines and wine-themed blogs have exhausted themselves in debating terroir, but without reaching much consensus. We might very well say that terroir’s appeal is precisely its uncertainty. If we could in fact measure the uptake of “place” in our wines it would surely be much less deserving of popular conversation (how long does the fun really last even in semi-spirited discussions of residual sugar and tannins, both among the many measurable or perceptible qualities of wine?). Proust (F Wiki)Terroir remains something that we all want to believe in. It gives us something to think deeply about. It’s our Proustian transporter to vacations past. It justifies more and greater purchases. It satisfies our thirst for subtle social differentiation. Terroir is a matter of faith, and faith is, if nothing else, an unyielding belief in the unknowable.

In spite of its hazy existence, some generalized assertions about terroir are possible, two of which I’d like to mention here. First, place does matter. Campaigners for terroir are selling more than just tulips in Amsterdam. There is a legitimate product behind the claims. The American wine critic David Schildknecht stands as one of the most sensible and passionate advocates of terroir. Equally passionate (if a bit more quixotic) is Terry Theise, a renowned importer whose heartfelt catalogs have become cult reading among terroir buffs. These intelligent and experienced voices leave us no doubt that soil and climate have some role to play in shaping taste in wine. Second, terroir is marketing. In spite of terroir’s genuineness, doubters and naysayers can and do have reasonable suspicions. Growers, importers, distributors, critics, and merchants have frequently been less than forthcoming about the technological side of the winemaking process. The fact is that the taste profile of the great majority of wines purchased in the U.S.—smoke, vanilla, espresso—is determined not by nature but by overt and intrusive cellar practices. To be clear, this is not unethical or even out of the ordinary, but in spite of what the label may say, this is not terroir.

That beer terroirists now look to wine terroirists for direction is a bittersweet irony (deny it all you want, but craft beer enthusiasts have by now been long-intoxicated by vinous plotting and scheming). The concept of terroir—if not direct use of the word by consumers—was mainstream in the wine trade by 1900. The dual phenomena of industrialization and urbanization in the 19th century brought with them massive changes in alcohol consumption. The mechanization of factory production allowed for the inexpensive manufacture of consistently good beer. From Chicago to Manchester to Hamburg, the spectacular growth of cities gifted beer companies their bread and butter; the wage laborer.Wine-Terroir Beer would become the drink of the modern man in the modern age. As a result, winegrowers and wine merchants, already feeling the pinch of their exclusion in the working class tavern, decided to fight back against the tide of steam, steel, and the 12-hour workday by making appeals to the very thing that industrialization and urbanization had abandoned: the good earth.

Historians have actually documented well the middle class reaction to the rapidity of change in this period, explaining how respectable men and women came to understand their evolving relationship with nature in marvelously new ways. Seemingly timeless things like dirt, love, sex, and well, even time, were given new meanings as human sociality shifted from the farm to the city. As part of this shift, pitched battles were fought over the production of food. Many food and beverage trades, including meat, dairy, and wine, were rocked by adulteration scandals grounded in the then contemporary conflation of food grown/raised in nature and food made or altered through technological processes. These adulteration scares, as well as the continuous losing of market share to beer consumption, helped spark wine’s return to nature.

This is a literal claim. Unlike factory-manufactured beer, winegrowers and other wine tradesmen saw themselves as resisting the onslaught of modernization by remaining tied to nature, with wine still a product of natural processes. Of course, an irony within the irony here is that this was also a remarkable period of growth for viticultural technology and the science of enology, both of which fostered a sense of urgency in those seeking to reclaim wine’s natural origins. In Germany and the United States, where industrialization and urbanization were most intense, advertisements for “natural wine” were most ubiquitous. The concept of natural was the central feature in the increasingly popular “single-vineyard” wines of Europe, with astronomical prices being paid for wines from well-known vineyards along Germany’s Mosel and Rhine Rivers, and in the French regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux. By 1900, the two essential components of terroir—naturalness and place—were firmly in place.

As with anything else, though, the terminology of wine and beer discloses a system of established, underlying beliefs.Hallertauer Hop Flower (Wiki) “Winegrower” is a far more terroir-friendly occupational status than “winemaker” presumes to be. The former apparently guides the wine already provided by nature while the latter seemingly makes the wine out of whole cloth. But rather than artificially imposing the language of terroir on the production of beer, I suggest that beer enthusiasts embrace the notion that beer is more a product of human hands than of terroir. Similar to the way a term like “winemaking” points to human decisions and interventions at every stage of the process, a term like “craft beer” has the virtue of honesty: it describes that very human element of beer production. DebatingTerroir - appellationamerica - GoldfarbAcknowledging craft beer for what it is – as much an industrial as an agricultural product, even at the artisanal level – means refusing to conceal the human in the language of terroir. Rather than making beer into wine, I would suggest recognizing the talent, ambition, and hard work of generations past of beer makers who fused together technological know-how and gustatory delight. In a word, what differentiates beers is the quality of the craftsmanship, not the origin of the hops.

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In addition to the many Schildknecht pieces widely available on the internet, you can hear his and other intelligent explanations of terroir on graperadio.com’s 2008 podcast: http://www.graperadio.com/archives/2008/04/07/soil-weather-terroir-and-wine/.

Terry Theise’s most recent catalogs can be found here: http://www.skurnikwines.com/msw/theise_catalogs.html

Jonas Frykman and Orvar Löfgren, Culture Builders: A Historical Anthropology of Middle-Class Life (Rutgers University Press, 1987).

Amy B. Trubek, The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir (University of California Press, 2009).

Kevin D. Goldberg (Ph.D. History, UCLA) is an instructor of History at Kennesaw State University. From 2011-2013 he was a Cogut Center Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University, where he organized a symposium on “Terroir in the Humanities.” Recent publications include articles in Food & Foodways and Agricultural History, as well as a forthcoming translation of Weinatlas Deutschland (Wine Atlas of Germany, University of California Press). Goldberg is currently writing a book, The Fermentation of Modern Taste: German Wine from Napoleon to the Great War.

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Image credits:

Barley Field: Wikipedia Commons

Proust: Wikipedia France

Soil-Encrusted Bottle: Allwine

Hallertauer Hop Flower: Wikipedia

Terroir/Winemaker Cartoon: Appellation America.

13 thoughts on “Terroir and the Making of Beer into Wine

  1. Bryan

    I may be simplifying too much with this, but in both beer and wine, wouldn’t it be acceptable to recognize the symbiotic relationship between the idea of a “maker” and a “grower?”

    In the case of beer, I don’t believe it’s an issue to recognize the creativity and skill of a brewer – just look at the diverse collection of beers and different variations of styles at your local bottle shop. But while it may not be as pronounced for agricultural yields and quality as wine, the origin of materials like hops would certainly be an important part of the sensory process, wouldn’t it?

    Ultimately, the quality of the product is determined by the skill and labor put into it, but choosing between a variety of ingredients and an ever-increasing array of adjuncts/additives we can add to beer, I imagine the terroir (or whatever term may be applicable for beer) still comes into play.

    I appreciate the history lesson – especially as it makes me think of wine’s place alongside beer. Cheers!

    Reply
    1. Kevin D. Goldberg

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Bryan. I quite like how you describe the “symbiotic relationship” between growing and making, and I think that this is spot on. However, terroir still carries with it certain problems that have yet to be resolved, and this can cripple the exchange of legitimate, understandable information. There is no accountability in terroir. We can make claims about tasting “place” in our beer, but we have no systematic or universalized way to quantify or experience it sensorily. On the other hand, if I told you that Beer X had 110 calories, but lab testing reveals it had 210 calories, I could be held accountable and the information would, over time, be corrected. In addition, the language of terroir serves to conceal or mask labor and technology. While some may be able to discern shades of grey between “growing” and “making” in the buying process, many of us cannot. Determining taste preferences by geographic region, vineyard, or hop farm, is a dead end path. In wine, two distinct vintners can make extraordinarily different wines from the same vineyard’s grapes. Without knowledge of winemaking styles and cellar practices, we really have very little information on which to forecast taste. I can certainly empathize with the intellectual thrill of purchasing/consuming by place…this is a far more romantic pursuit than buying because of malolactic fermentation, for example. But its utility, in any virtuous or forthright sense, is limited. And as much as this is the case for wine, I fear that it is an even greater challenge for beer.

      Reply
  2. Daegan Miller

    A great and thoughtful post on a subject that, as you point out, has generated an ocean of spilled ink. I actually think that one of the most interesting aspects of terroir is not whether or not such a thing REALLY exists, but how the concept gets used, by whom, when. I loved the history you provide–especially the bit about terroir as a backlash against the commodification and simplification of industry. One of the surprising twists nowadays seems to me to be how left-wing-ish folks who would normally be critical of things like the nation flock to the power of concepts like terroir in order to combat placeless, global corporate power. This isn’t to debunk or snidely point the finger at such thinking, by the way.

    For my own two cents, I really WANT to believe that grapes (or barley or hops), the processing and fermenting that take place in one region all leave their particular discernible thumbprints…but I’m also skeptical. On the other hand, I can totally get behind the notion that yeast–especially in beer making–leaves its calling card. I’ve never in my life been able to brew beer that tastes like anyone else’s, and I think it must because of my super-local ambient yeast/bacteria combination.

    So my question is, does yeast play a role in the wine/beer making debates about terroir? If so, at what scale (national/state/region/farmhouse/room)?

    Anyway, great post.

    Reply
    1. Kevin D. Goldberg

      Thanks for your kind words, Daegan. And I love the points that you make. Certainly yeast is as or more essential than what is traditionally loaded into definitions of terroir, but of course nobody–save beer brewers and winegrowers–likes talking about it. Joking aside, the powers that be in the beer and wine trades are not yet comfortable talking about the fermentation process over the airways. Until that happens, yeast will remain the great, unspoken factor in production. Of course, that the beermaker can decide which yeasts to use/not use lends even greater credence to the idea of “craft.” Also, you hit on a great paradox about who, generally, supports or even cares about such things as terroir. While you say “left-wing-ish,” I think something like “educated-intellectual-ish” is closer to the mark. I say this as somebody who has spent a lot of time in Orange County (CA) buying wine alongside smart, educated people who I wouldn’t exactly classify as on the left of the political spectrum. BUT, you are right to point out that there is something nationalist, or at least parochial, about terroir. I’m intrigued by the use of terroir to combat “placeless, global corporate power.” My hunch is that this is more visible in beer than wine, though wine certainly has its mega-brands. A problem, however, is that nobody controls the “local” as well as abstract corporate entities (like the borderline fictitious idea of “grassroots” in politics). I’d love to hear you say more about this. Thanks.

      Reply
      1. Daegan Miller

        Ahhhhh, I take your point about the pro-terroir folks being more “educated-intellectual-ish” rather than “left-wing-ish.” It shows where my head goes, and I guess I was referring more to how place has cropped up in funny ways in lefty circles recently (and perhaps most surprisingly [but then again, perhaps not] in anarchist or anarchist-inflected discussions). I’m thinking of circles like Community Supported Agriculture, and though one certainly can’t paint with too-broad brush strokes, there’s certainly a libertarian-left side to CSAs. I wonder how focusing on the consumer rather than the producer skews things?

        One of the critiques that I’ve heard leveled against pro-terroir, lefty foodies is precisely about what constitutes/who designates the local/regional/national. The example–which is an extreme one, I’ll admit–that I often hear is about McDonald’s in Europe: how is McD’s in Italy more invasive than, say, the tomato (a New World fruit) in Italian cooking? But this seems to me to be wandering a bit far from terroir, right?

        Anyway, it’s a great, though-provoking post that has turned up some vigorous debate over at BeerAdvocate: http://beeradvocate.com/community/threads/terroir-and-beer.138611/page-2#post-1999810

        Reply
        1. Kevin D. Goldberg

          Your post reminds me that the Slow Food Movement (among countless other food-themed initiatives) did begin life as a left-ish political movement. I think then that there is certainly a political layer to many of these artisanal ideas, particularly in Europe. You raise another important (and really, even more problematic) point in the McDonalds/Tomato dichotomy. Because the tomato is not native to the Italian peninsula, does this nullify any claims about the use of the tomato in authentic or traditional cooking? Where do we draw the line between authentic tradition and foreign invasion? In fact, one can argue that McDonald’s has become an institutionalized part of the culinary experience in Europe. Certainly, McDonald’s is no less authentic than the gourmet, small plate phenomenon which we wrongly assume is some sort of long-toothed European tradition.

          Reply
  3. Stan Hieronymus

    You give us a lot to think about here, Kevin.

    Even though I own the domain beerterroir.com I think it would be much better to avoid the word “terroir” when talking about beer because it creates an immediately analogy with wine. In fact, in France (and elsewhere) “terroir” refers to move than wine, and we are always better off considering beer as a food product – even though, as you point out, at scale the process mmay appear “industrial” (another word that came with a certain amount of baggage).

    To build a bit on what Bryan wrote, one of the decisions a brewer makes is how much of the origin of the hops, malt, wood (in beers aged in barrels) he or she wants to be obvious in the finished beer. It might not showcase hops from the place where it was brewed, but it could allow the character of the hops of a particular region to remain, as opposed to be blended into a variety that could be from anywhere or nowhere.

    And I think that is why beers that are brewed using basically the same processes as industrial beers are not industrial. The industrial beers are produced specifically not to come from a (single) place.

    Reply
    1. Kevin D. Goldberg

      Thanks for the comment, Stan. First, your website is stunning, and you should be commended for the work that you do. After Franz introduced your site to me a few weeks ago, I spent some time on it, learning tons by the minute. Thanks for putting in the time and effort to make this available to the reading public. Your point that “industrial” comes with as much (if not more) baggage than “terroir” is a good one, and is something I need to think more carefully about. It really sounds like we’re biting from different sides of the same apple. There is no question that place matters (as I wrote in the post, but did not elaborate on); and so does craft. What you said about the beermaker having to make decisions about showcasing or not showcasing certain characteristics of the hops, malt, etc., also rings true for wine. For example, a decision to age wine in old, used casks generally imparts less oak (vanilla, smoke flavors) than a brand new cask. These are important moments when the “symbiotic relationship” that Bryan alluded to becomes “fluidly dynamic.”

      Reply
  4. Crystal

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughtful opinion on this subject. The romantic and narrative appeal of terroir is absolutely seductive—and for that reason, you are right on when you say that it’s more a matter of us wanting it to be true, and of blind faith, than anything else, particularly in the beer world.

    A lot of the comments have raised the question of hops as a signifier of terroir—strictly speaking though, can a beer made with only New Zealand hops, but produced by a brewery in Ontario (using Canadian barley) be said to come from the soil of a single place? I don’t think so.

    I explored this subject in a story I wrote for The Globe & Mail here in Canada, and something that Iain McOustra, a brewer from Amsterdam Brewery, said, stuck with me. He believes the only true style of beer that can boast of having a sense of the place where it is made, are wild-fermented beers, like lambics. (Iain is experimenting with fermenting a beer in a coolship in the vineyards of Niagara-on-the-Lake, making, what he dubs a “Ni-ambic.”)

    I agree that craft beer is a better term for what happens in beer-production these days, and the success of a beer lies primarily in the hands of its maker. I do think, however, that the element of place exists in beer and that’s why the exploration over the concept of terroir in craft beer will continue.

    Thanks for sharing,
    Crystal

    Here’s the link to the Globe story: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/food-and-wine/wine/maritime-malt-and-eggy-whiffs-what-exactly-does-beer-terroir-mean/article4764506/

    Reply
    1. Kevin D. Goldberg

      Hi Crystal,

      Thanks for providing a link to your story at the Globe and Mail. It was interesting to get a real, “on the ground” perspective, from Canada…certainly home to some of the best beer in the world. I also navigated my way around some of your other writings, and learned a great deal. The great comments here have made me think more about how beer and wine differ in the possibilities for terroir to be expressed and how people approach the subject from very different angles. Beer drinkers seem to concede more relevance to wine in discussions of terroir, but I’m not entirely sold on that. There is plenty more to think about.

      Reply
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