Pinning Down Place

“Pinning Down Place” is Part II of my series on place and locality. For Part I, “A Reflection of Place, But Dimly,” click here. For Part III, “Romancing the Local,” click here.

Just as we had begun the short ascent up the hill to the Augustine Monastery in Salzburg, the dark clouds amassing overhead broke loose. We reached the heavy doors, hurried down the stairs, and arrived at the beer stall right at the moment the barkeeper was tapping a fresh wooden keg. Augustiner Stein (FB pg)Steins of Märzen in hand, we headed out into the leafy beer garden and found a table under a massive horse chestnut tree. We could hear the rain lashing at the canopy overhead, but it wasn’t until we were seeing the bottom of our glasses that the first drops began to trickle through. The afternoon was a memorable prelude to many trips back to the Augustiner, both for the refreshing beer and the ambience.

My current preoccupation with craft beer has afforded me the enviable opportunity of visiting many an artisanal brewery proud of its local connections. Some of these breweries even produce beer with ingredients from the plants and trees growing around me. Unique and eminently fresh beers reflect the brewer’s efforts to source ingredients locally, with local honey, maple syrup, or seasonal nuts and fruits occasionally making their way into kettles and fermenters. (See my pieces on Abandon and Hopshire Farms in the Finger Lakes region.) The passage of legislation like New York State’s 2013 farm brewery bill has stimulated local agricultural economies. Hop production is a small-but-growing industry in a state that once produced the bulk of U.S. hops in the days prior to Prohibition. Maltsters such as Farmhouse Malt in Newark Valley, NY, have sprung up to receive the barley crops that farmers in the area are starting to plant. The resurgence of the New York hop industry and the rise of farmhouse breweries makes for a powerful and compelling narrative. And it’s something that we can feel a part of when we consume locally. Local beer, expressive of its origins.

Languid beer garden afternoons in Salzburg, visits to farm breweries in New York State – both present powerful evidence in favour of a relationship between beer and place, albeit in very different ways. IMG_8756I recounted the first anecdote as a means of signaling the importance of the memories that I associate with Salzburg and the beer garden in shaping my perception of the beer I drank. As fascinating as these mnemonic connections between certain beers and places are, though, I will confine myself to one passing remark: We sometimes confuse our own place-dependent memories and experiences with the beer itself having a sense of place. What concerns me more is the second case, insofar as we project our desire to drink locally onto this same notion – that beer exudes a sense of place. Sometimes the two notions overlap; more often they don’t.

As I note in the sentences that introduce visitors to A Tempest in a Tankard, I drink “locally,” but not militantly so. I drink Aventinus whenever and wherever I can, and I wish I could find more than a handful of British ales in my local liquor store. If the brewer around the corner or in the next town is making compelling beers, I’m all for it. But what about the much more ubiquitous cases of breweries that don’t operate in “beer friendly” states, or that are located in regions that might not produce the kind of agricultural bounty typical of the brewing arts? What of breweries that might not have the financial wherewithal to establish themselves on a piece of land and then farm that land for their ingredients? What of those breweries and brewpubs that are part of the urban scenery rather than the pastoral landscape?

These questions are worth pondering for several reasons. Place matters enough to some commentators to warrant an appellation system similar to that of wine. I allow that beer reflects its conditions of origin. Even so, I don’t think an appellation system for beer is tenable insofar as such designations accord undue emphasis to a notion of place insufficiently divorced from the distraction of terroir. Then there’s the matter of “tasting” place in beer, a perennial favourite of well-meaning advocates of local consumption who unwittingly (and sometimes very consciously) conflate place and terroir. Beers may be a reflection of place, but can we “taste place” in beer? An impossibly difficult question to answer on two counts: ingredients and process.

Excursus: If I were to blind-taste a New Belgium La Folie next to a Duchesse de Bourgogne from Verhaeghe, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you whether I’m imbibing a taste of Fort Collins, Colorado, or of Vichte in West Flanders. Maybe I’m imbibing less a “taste of place” and more a shared ethos connecting places on different continents. (Cue up objections revolving around wild/spontaneous fermentation here. In the very near future I’m going to taste a bottle of Jester King beer alongside a bottle of Argus cider to test the claim that there’s a “goût de terroir” endemic to the Texas Hill Country. And then I’ll set up a blind tasting with Argus as the control, and then taste a Jolly Pumpkin alongside a Jester King to see if I can distinguish Michigan from Texas.)

One could certainly advance the argument that, historically at least, climate and water influenced the development of lagers in southern Germany and dry stouts in Dublin. Hops (auer-bier dot de)It’s no accident that certain hop or grain varieties thrive in certain soils, topographies, and climatic conditions, just like a given grape varietal grows better in one region than in another. Though an agricultural product like wine, beer is different from wine in that many if not all of the ingredients that go into beer produced in a particular place are sourced from elsewhere. On top of all this, the beer we drink is the result of a process. By the time the grain has been harvested and malted, by the time the malt has been mashed and the wort boiled with the hops, by the time all of this has spent weeks or months in the fermenter or in a barrel, the “taste of place” becomes an exceedingly abstract notion. Augustiner Sudhaus (FB pg)

Beer upsets many a desire to pin down place, except in the broadest sense. Even in limited cases in which breweries can source most of their ingredients locally, the plethora of international and domesticated styles represented at even these breweries or brewpubs renders regional styles in North America heuristic at best. In this sense, beer reveals its hybrid nature: a product of agriculture, but not necessarily of a particular agricultural locale. A moveable feast, as it were, brewed anywhere.

Where does that leave our local brewery?

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In Part III, “Romancing the Local,” I consider a few of the following questions: Do place and locality intersect in the invocation to consume locally? Or would it be better to draw a distinction between “beer as an expression of place” and “drinking locally?” For Part I, “A Reflection of Place, But Dimly,” click here.

 

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Sources:

For Part I of the series, “A Reflection of Place, But Dimly,” click here. Part I reflects on a few of the issues Kevin Goldberg raises in his Tempest contribution, “Terroir and the Making of Beer into Wine.”

Stan Hieronymus began articulating the connections between beer and place in his Brew Like a Monk (Boulder: Brewers Publications, 2005), one of my favourite books on beer. His writing conveys a sense of the culture and the tradition behind abbey and Trappist ales while also urging readers to consider arguments in favour of appellations for beer.

Crystal Luxmore has also pondered the imprint of terroir on beer in an article for The Globe and Mail, and in an extended interview with Charlie Bamforth, a professor of brewing science at UC Davis. Both pieces raise the issue of wild fermentation.

Images:

Beer Stein: Augustiner Bräustübl Salzburg Mülln (Facebook Page)

Hopshire Farm and Brewery Hop Tower: Franz D. Hofer

Hops: www.auer-bier.de

Brewhouse: Augustiner Bräustübl Salzburg Mülln (Facebook Page)

4 thoughts on “Pinning Down Place

  1. Bryan

    I’d surely like to read this a second time and give a comment additional thought, but I wanted to get this in while it was present in my mind.

    One of the “local” movements for breweries who produce coffee-infused beers is to state they bought their coffee locally. Well, in the United States the coffee they purchased is most certainly not local, but at best locally roasted. It came from somewhere else (read: tropical) and then was perhaps treated at the coffee shop down the street before it landed in the brewery.

    But it’s still referenced as “local.” (I use this anecdote after hearing it several times in the past month)

    I suppose this sticks out to me because of the muddled nature of it all. This seems like an extension of my thought from Part 1, where the subjective sense of “place” seems to fit more nicely in the chasm of my mind than on the tip of my tongue. I can close my eyes and taste the coffee … or fruit … or vegetable … but after brewing, something provided from 10 feet away of the brewery may taste the same as something 10 states away.

    It’s late for me. I hope that made sense.

    Reply
    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Bryan,

      I’ve been meaning to respond for awhile, but have been contending with an on-again, off-again cold that recently did away with my sense of smell (48 hours and counting now). On a positive note, our coffee roaster arrived today, so I’ll be able to whip up one-pound batches of locally-roasted coffee for my porters and stouts.

      As for coffee beers that don’t originate within these four walls, I have to admit that I haven’t paid too much attention to how brewers are labeling them. The ones I’ve drunk usually mention some sort of collaboration with a local roaster. I haven’t yet come across any that tout the use of “local coffee” per se, but I’ll pay more attention from now on. You make a great point about how these otherwise compelling collaborations potentially blur the lines between locally-roasted coffee and the origin of the roaster’s coffee.

      On a more general level, your comment underscores how beer, even if produced “locally” and with “locally-sourced ingredients,” is the result of a number of different processes that can obscure a sense of place as far as the ingredients are concerned.

      Reply
  2. Daegan Miller

    Hey, Franz:

    This series just gets better and better. I think you nail it when you write: “We sometimes confuse our own place-dependent memories and experiences with the beer itself having a sense of place.” Not to get all academic on you, but there are a whole slew of geographers who wrestle with “place,” because, after all, “a sense of place” is one of the big rallying cries of anti-globalization and a certain kind of environmentalism. One of the things that someone like Doreen Massey comes up with is that we should think of “place” as a series of overlapping screens–geography, experience, demography, environment–all of which are in constant flux. The Ithaca of right now is not the Ithaca of 5 years ago, though *parts* may remain. I wonder if you could adapt this to beer. The *flavor* of beer may not manifest “place” (though, perhaps we could associate big and bright cascade hopped beers with the Pacific North West, or, maybe even broader, the US?), but maybe the whole package? I think of something like New Glarus’s Wisconsin Belgian Red. We get specificity in the name (New Glarus and Wisconsin) and a sense of geographical connection (Belgian–also and indication of the *style*/taste). The label tells us to expect: “Over a pound of Door County Cherries in every bottle makes this beer uniquely ‘Wisconsin.'” I can’t taste the place-difference between a Door County Cherry and a cherry from Wegman’s to save my life–but it all adds up to a notion that the WBR is *different*, unique, and cosmically suited to bratwurst and the Badgers or Packers.

    I like where Bryan, above, writes: “the subjective sense of ‘place’ seems to fit more nicely in the chasm of my mind than on the tip of my tongue.” Maybe place, as opposed to terroir, is more intellectual/full-five-senses-experiential?

    Anyway, like always, a thoughtful, provocative post!

    Reply
    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Daegan,

      As I just mentioned to Bryan (who also commented on this piece), I’ve been meaning to respond for awhile, but am only now beginning to get over a nasty cold that’s been plaguing me for more than a week.

      You bring up a series of excellent points, starting with your characterization of place in contradistinction to terroir as something more “intellectual/five-senses-experiential.” Thinking of place in this way can even take us beyond the senses, opening up our notion of place to all those sometimes unconscious environmental subtleties that go into shaping the relationship between memory and experience.

      I really like how you link the significance of packaging and the suggestiveness of naming with regard to the New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red. What an interesting imbrication of places and styles! Taken together, packaging and naming add another dimension to how we respond to the beer in front of us. (A little bit of Barthes’ “Rhetoric of the Image” meets Austin’s How to Do Things with Words right there.) I’m not familiar with Massey’s work, but this “kaleidoscopic” notion of place as a series of overlapping yet constantly shifting screens strikes me as a healthy diachronic antidote to otherwise static and “timeless” conceptualizations of place.

      As always, thanks for the thought-provoking comments!

      Reply

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