One of my favourite food and beverage combinations is a glass of Manzanilla accompanied by shrimp sautéed in olive oil and garlic, dusted with Pimentón de la Vera, and finished with a shot of Oloroso. The bracingly dry sea-breeze crispness is the perfect foil to the smoky richness of the shrimp. Manzanilla comes from Sanlúcar, a coastal town in Andalucía situated not far from the inland focal point of sherry production, Jerez de la Frontera. Could it be Sanlúcar’s location, buffeted by Mediterranean breezes, that accounts for the salinity of these delicate Manzanillas?
When it comes to other wines that both pair with a wide variety of foods and are perfectly drinkable on their own, I can’t think of too many wines better than a Riesling from the Mosel or Rheingau regions of Germany. Acidity balances sweetness, and the stone fruit aromas and flavours are offset by a refreshing minerality. Touring the villages along the sleepy Mosel River, it’s difficult not to be struck by all the slate roofs. Perhaps this abundance of slate in the area has contributed something to that refreshing mineral quality of a fine Riesling.
In all of these cases and in many more I could enumerate, who can deny the influence of place, geography, climate, location, and – dare I say – terroir?
But as Kevin Goldberg’s recent guest article for Tempest makes clear, terroir is a problematic notion charged with emotive sentiment – as much an article of faith as it is a product of soil, water, and other environmental factors.
If terroir is a tattered term in the world of wine, it arrives at the door of the craft beer world even worse for wear. Not many brewers in North America have the luxury of sourcing their own ingredients within a hundred kilometers of their brewery. And once even they set to work on the grain, hops, and water that eventually become beer, so many human interventions along the way turn the finished product into something that we can’t really call, in good faith, an “expression of terroir.”
Goldberg’s insightful critique of terroir in wine may well have put paid to the notion of terroir and craft beer; even so, the association of beer and “place” seems to be an idea that more of us craft beer enthusiasts are prepared to entertain. I consider myself one of these people. But I still have my reservations about the notion of beer as an “expression of place” or a “sense of place.” What’s more, I’m wary about how hastily some of us rush to substitute “place” for “terroir” without reflecting on how prickly the notion of place itself can be.
On the surface of it, place is simple enough, commonplace, as it were. Something we talk about all the time. Where are you right now? Where are you going later? But not unlike Augustine’s meditation on time in his Confessions, place, too, becomes increasingly complex the more we consider it. Place evokes the hearth, the safety of time spent among kith and kin. We become attached to places, even long for them nostalgically. Like its counterpart, space, place is something to which humans attach meaning. And meaning-making can take on ideological hues. Space is infinity, a limitless horizon. But it also marks the limit of our sense of place. The frontier. The other. He or she who is not of my locale, my place. As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan puts it: “Spaces are marked off and defended against intruders. Places are centers of felt value.” There’s no place like home, said Dorothy when she returned from Oz.
But what is it that lends a particular locality its aura? In pondering the question, Tuan recounts an anecdote about the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s visit to Kronborg Castle in Denmark. “Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here?” remarked Bohr to Heisenberg. “As scientists, we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stones, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and the ramparts speak a quite different language.”
To drink, or not to drink. Does a beer’s provenance matter? Where is this beer made? Does it, too, exude an aura? Where were the hops grown? Is the raw grain from Germany, the U.K., or Canada? What of the malt? Is the beer local, authentically so? What do we mean when we say “authentically local”? Who and what do we exclude with these invocations of place?
What started out as a collection of thoughts for a longish comment to Goldberg’s critique of terroir has turned into an essay of sorts, one that I’ll post on Tempest in three parts. Part I, which you have just read, attempts to frame the complexity of place. Part II subjects the notion of place to critical scrutiny. Part III steps back from critique and offers suggestions for how we can make “place” a meaningful part of the craft beer discussion – and not merely another marketing term. I start from the assumption that, save for the possible exception of cases having to do with wild fermentation, we can’t “taste place” in our beer. Rather than understanding beer as an “expression” or even a “sense” of place, I propose, instead, something more modest: that we consider beer as a reflection of the environment, circumstances, and processes surrounding its production – in short, that we consider beer as a reflection of place, but dimly.
Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).
Kronborg Castle: Wikipedia
Weyermann Malt: www.weyermann.de