A Reflection of Place, But Dimly (Part I)

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. IMG_9751The 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. 100-3066_IMG

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.

Kronborg Castle (Wiki)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? Weyermann Malt Bags (weyermann-de)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.

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References:

Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).

Image Sources:

Kronborg Castle: Wikipedia

Weyermann Malt: www.weyermann.de

4 thoughts on “A Reflection of Place, But Dimly (Part I)

  1. Kevin Goldberg

    Thoughtful piece. I think splitting terroir and place into separate categories is the appropriate thing to do. Iron City beer of Pittsburgh certainly evokes “place,” especially for those of us from the Keystone State, but an exhibition of “terroir” would be an entirely different…problem. Really, place may be a far more complex and probably interesting phenomenon than terroir, as evidenced by your example of Kronborg Castle. But what then is the relationship between terroir and place (assuming we can’t just keep them separate forever)? Can terroir lead to an experience of place, and vice versa (both are, after all, human experiences…nothing more)? Are they parallel or do they ever intersect? I’m looking forward to your follow-up piece.

    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Kevin,

      You raise an excellent point about how even the name, “Iron City,” can contextualize and situate the brewery for anyone familiar with Pittsburgh. Without having to think too hard, I can come up with several similar examples of beer names from among the breweries I’ve profiled so far. Hopshire Farm and Brewery brews an IPA called Near Varna. The quaint pun is certain to resonate with anyone who has spent some time in the Ithaca area and is familiar with the brewery’s proximity to the hamlet of Varna just down the road. North by Northwest in Austin has a beer called Barton Kriek – a witty reference to the creek that flows out of the Hill Country.

      What I really like about your comment is how you emphasize the experience of place. It puts the beer drinker back in the picture, and also points to two different “moments,” if you’ll allow the awkward temporal metaphor: the place of production, and the place of consumption. The two don’t always overlap. If and when they do, then your question about whether terroir can lead to an experience of place (and vice versa) takes on an added significance. But even if I’m attracted to the Proustian dimensions of framing the relationship in this way, I have my doubts about the utility of the notion of “terroir” when it comes to beer. (If we were discussing wine, my thinking might be different, but I’ll leave that one for another day and another drink.)

      Does the experience of drinking a Barton Kriek evoke the “terroir” of the Hill Country? It might evoke the place, but not the terroir. A few people who commented on your Tempest piece over at Beer Advocate suggested that perhaps we could taste the “terroir” of the Hill Country in Jester King’s beers, or Argus Cidery’s ciders. The two aren’t far apart, and both employ wild fermentation techniques, so the notion of “terroir” in this case is, at least, open to debate. But even in these cases, “terroir” is a secondary factor at best. So much more contributes to what eventually reaches us in the bottle or the glass that I’m inclined to reject the notion of terroir in beer all together. Place is problematic enough without adding additional layers of soil to the discussion.

      Can we keep “terroir” and place separated forever? I suppose that by virtue of its status as an agricultural product, beer will always entangle itself in discussions of terroir. But because beer can be produced just about anywhere – and the ingredients can, conceivably, come from different continents – I think it would be fruitful to think about another of your provocative questions as a proposition along the following lines: place and terroir run along parallel tracks that only occasionally intersect.

      As always, thanks for the engaging comments! I think I need to go eat and drink some terroir now.

  2. Bryan

    When considering the lexicon of beer, I’d say the term (or even movement of) “local” is fairly ubiquitous, but is most certainly broader than “terroir” and perhaps even “place.” I subscribe to the mantra of “drink local,” but as to what that means is open to interpretation.

    I once gave thought to how “local” applies to craft beer (http://bit.ly/1fAowhj), especially in terms of its growth and interest. When it comes to food, a person’s impression of local can range from down the street to a neighboring county to a adjourning state. In the case of beer ingredients, that’s a whole lot of terroir to consider, if you’d even want to consider it at all.

    I often reference a local brewery here in Durham, Fullsteam, that tries to tie its business philosophy of local into beer production: http://www.fullsteam.ag/beer/our-local-ingredients/. What comes of that are certainly uniquely North Carolina beers, but there’s no reason flavor and aromas couldn’t be replicated in Montana or Arizona by a skilled brewer.

    … and I suppose that’s my tie-in to Kevin’s original terroir piece and my way of saying I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Bryan,

      Talk about memories of place! What was the first thing I saw when I clicked on your interesting essay about what makes a beer local? An image of Ithaca Brewing Company’s Alphalpha in your blog banner. Nice coincidence.

      And then there’s your reference to Fullsteam. I haven’t had any of their beers yet, but I first heard about them a few months back when I was trying to formulate a homebrew recipe with persimmons. I don’t know if they ever did brew their persimmon beer from the 1913 recipe they uncovered, but what I read about them sounded intriguing.

      I’m glad you brought up the notion of consuming locally, and pointed out that drinking local is a matter that’s open to interpretation. I also like the two examples you cite in your essay of what makes the term “local” extremely amorphous: survey respondents who, when asked what local meant to them, answered that “anything created within our country’s borders could be considered local”; and Budweiser’s remarkable claim to be “America’s largest local brewery.”

      As much as the act of buying local can be coded “progressive,” it’s not without its own set of problems. Kevin and Daegan had a nice exchange of ideas about this issue in the comments section to Kevin’s piece on terroir, and I’ll rehearse similar lines of thought over the remainder of my series on place. You’re spot on, too, in noting that it’s not impossible to recreate another brewery’s beer elsewhere – an argument, I suppose, in favour of drawing a further distinction between “beer as an expression of place” and “drinking locally.”

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