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. 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. I 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. 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.
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?
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.
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.
Beer Stein: Augustiner Bräustübl Salzburg Mülln (Facebook Page)
Hopshire Farm and Brewery Hop Tower: Franz D. Hofer
Brewhouse: Augustiner Bräustübl Salzburg Mülln (Facebook Page)