Romancing the Local (Part III of “A Reflection of Place, But Dimly”)

  • Oxford American Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” for 2007: locavore.
  • A locavore attempts to consume food that is locally produced – within a one hundred-mile radius, if possible.
  • As of June 2013, the number of breweries in the United States had reached 2538, with more than 1500 in development. According to the Brewers Association, the majority of Americans live within ten miles of a brewery. (Alas, for the time being, Canadian residents living in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba are not so lucky: the majority of Canadian breweries are concentrated in British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec.)

Brewery Count (BrewersAssocs)

Many are the perceived benefits of consuming locally. Our decision to “buy local” stimulates local economies and reduces carbon footprints. The goods we buy are at their peak freshness, and we know where they came from. When we go to our local brewery to sample a flight of beer, we can talk to the brewer or server and learn the story behind the beer in our glasses. As one proponent of the local food movement states, “Getting to know your local producers gives you a stronger sense of place.” But does it? Do we really feel more connected to locally-brewed beer than we do to beers brewed elsewhere?

An issue I raised in “Pinning Down Place” bears reformulation as a question here: What are some of the pitfalls of projecting our desire to drink locally onto the notion that beer exudes a sense of place?

One obvious problem lies in the amorphous nature of what it means to be “local.” Is it the brewery itself, rooted in its particular place, or is it the ingredients?IMG_0030 Does the brewery down the street brew with “locally-sourced” ingredients, or does it brew with malt from Germany, the United Kingdom, or Belgium? Does the use of internationally-sourced ingredients at the brewery down the road render its beer less “local”? What are the spatial constraints of the term local? Does it refer to ingredients produced within a hundred miles of the brewery, or – if the brewery is American – can the term also refer to hops produced in the Yakima Valley but used in Florida? So much for the ingredients. What of Budweiser’s claim to be “America’s largest local brewery”? What if your “local” beer is brewed under contract in a different region or state? Who designates – and what constitutes – the local?

What concerns me about a fixation on place coupled with the drive to consume locally is this: craft brewers who produce excellent beers with ingredients that aren’t sourced in their backyards could potentially be deemed less “authentic” than those who, by luck of location, are able to produce beers bearing the agricultural imprint of their locale. What about the brewer who can’t (or is not interested in) brewing a beer with “local” ingredients?Maple Syrup (Wiki) Is the beer produced at a brewery nestled amid the warehouses of a light industrial district any less “authentically local” than the beer that uses maple syrup tapped from trees on the brewer’s land?

Attaching too much importance to the connection between beer and place and its corollary, “buy local,” bears with it the potential establishment of hierarchies within the craft beer community. (Before we dismiss the notion of craft beer hierarchies, it’s worth pointing out that the antipathy toward contract brewing evinces a dubious understanding of authenticity often echoed in the promotion of local consumption.) The statement, “This beer is made with one hundred-percent locally grown ingredients” is, prima facie, an innocuous statement. But it conceals a normative claim: if you don’t buy locally, you are lending support to an entity that is not of this locale, not one of us. We don’t have to reach far for examples of this logic in action. The automobile industry’s “Buy American” campaign of the 1980s intersected with a particularly virulent form of Japan-bashing.

One might object that this is an extreme example. But similar mechanisms of moral suasion are at work in many a call to support the local economy: nationalism writ small, as it were. The “buy local movement” – sometimes coded as socially and politically “progressive” – is not immune to these unexamined parochial sentiments. BuyLocal (blockbyblock-us)For some, the attractiveness of consuming locally lies in knowing where our food comes from; for others, the choice represents a rejection of corporate America. But on an affective level, the appeal to consume locally plays on our attachments to place. Beer produced locally is often sold as being more “wholesome” and “natural” – of this place, of this land. Historically, though, ideologies that promote ties to the land and to locality have given rise to insularity, chauvinism, and xenophobia. It may make us feel good to consume locally. But the sentiment risks fostering an “us versus them” mentality that views goods and services arriving from elsewhere as in some way suspect.

This is not to undermine the efforts of breweries that make beer with locally-sourced ingredients whenever it is possible to do so. I wholeheartedly support those brewers who take this ethos even further in their attempts to stimulate ancillary industries such as hop production and malting. But this should not stop us from examining the assumptions underpinning our desire to consume locally. The farm that supplies the hops and barley may well be “local,” and the brewery may well be right around the corner; but just as the Reinheitsgebot does not, in itself, guarantee good beer, proximity is no guarantor of excellence.

An uncritical embrace of “the local” also opens the door to investors trading in the popularity of “locally-produced craft beer.” Unfortunately, some folks sell a sense of place at the expense of quality. I’ve visited and read about more than a handful of “local breweries” attracted to profit more than to the prospect of producing top-notch beer. It wouldn’t be the first time that a local artisan has wrapped inferior goods in the romantic appeal of local essence.

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Sources:

In formulating my thoughts for this series, I have benefited immensely from the insightful comments to Kevin Goldberg’s “Terroir and the Making of Beer into Wine,” and from exchanges with those who have commented on earlier pieces in this series on craft beer and place. In particular, Daegan M., Kevin G., and Bryan R. may well recognize some of their own points and arguments woven into these pieces.

Part I of this series, “A Reflection of Place, But Dimly,” is here; Part II, “Pinning Down Place,” is here. What was originally slated as Part III, but which is now Part IV, considers how, in light of the critiques advanced in Parts II and III, the notion of place might still play a meaningful role in the craft beer discussion. Part IV is but a jumble of notes at the moment, so I look forward to engaging with more of your comments and critical interventions as I work the jumble into a relatively coherent post.

Images:

Brewery Count: Brewers Association

Twenty-Six Paces from Tempest’s Computer (aka very local brewery): Franz D. Hofer

Maple Syrup: Wikipedia

Buy Local Collage: www.blockbyblock.us

5 thoughts on “Romancing the Local (Part III of “A Reflection of Place, But Dimly”)

    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Thanks for your comment! You’re definitely not alone in bringing up water as one of the primary ingredients that anchors a beer to a particular place. (Yeast is another, especially if the beer is wild-fermented). I think one could certainly build a case on historical grounds for how particular styles developed in particular places, and the case would largely hold in those parts of the world that continue to brew only a range of beers that suit the city/region’s water supply. But I think the linkage becomes more attenuated when we start to talk about the plethora of beer styles available across North America. A brewer who wants to brew, say, a Czech-style Pilsener, but whose water supply is on the harder end of the scale, will have two basic choices. One is not to brew a Czech-style Pilsener (or risk it tasting harsh). Another is to build up reverse osmosis (or similarly treated) water with the brewing salts typical of the region. I suppose a third option would be to locate a soft water source somewhere in North America, and then truck the water in. But that probably wouldn’t be feasible on a number of levels.

      Here’s a link to an interesting article written by a geologist who makes a strong case for considering the importance of water. She acknowledges that homebrewers the world over can build a close approximation of the waters of famous regions such as Burton-Upon-Trent, but ultimately concludes the following:

      “There is no substitute for natural waters, which heavily depend on local geology for their unique characteristics, and the character of the natural water used can have a big impact on the final brew. […] The metamorphic rocks underlying Pilsen allow groundwater to move through fractures, but not many minerals are dissolved. The limestone around Dublin produces groundwater with a very different composition. And the water near Burton-upon-Trent is influenced by the underlying sandstone with gypsum.”

      Reply
  1. Daegan Miller

    Well, I was inspired. Went to my local beer store, here in Madison, WI and picked up a New Glarus Uff-Da (a Bock brewed to Reinheitsgebot strictures) and a New Glarus Snowshoe. Apparently it’s an “Irish Amber” made with ” a blend of American and German malts. We also infuse generous amounts of hops from Slovenia and the Great Pacific Northwest to add a special note of warmth for your winter evening’s enjoyment.” Then another local (sorta) from Milwaukee: the Sprecher scotch ale. And an Ommegang 3 Philosophers (finally got my 2013 to go with my 2012), a beer local-ish to the last place I lived. And the a Duchesse de Bourgogne, which might be the most “local” (in terms of idiocychrasy) beer of the lot.

    Sidenote: who do you think the 3 Philosophers refer to? Locals (Henry James, John Dewey, Emerson)?

    Reply
    1. Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Daegan,

      Your side note sent me off on a little “Where’s Waldo?” adventure.

      First I went to my beer fridge to see if my bottle of Three Philosophers would enlighten me. Just a bunch of stuff about a Belgian motto proclaiming “strength in union.” Sounds more like a political slogan than a philosophical maxim, although the admonition to “pour slowly” has an air of the philosophical about it. I wonder if the older Ommegang labels shed light on the riddle …

      After my fridge failed me, I hit the interwebs. Here’s what I eventually found at buffalobeerandfood.com:

      “Realistically, the only solution was to find out from the brewery itself. Luckily they were helpful. The answer: It’s a reference to a William Blake’s An Island in the Moon, a satire written in 1784 and published posthumously. In the novel, there are three main characters: Quid the Cynic; Suction the Epicurean; and Sipsop the Pythagorean. The brewers then extrapolated from the personalities of the characters to opine on the beer they had produced and was presumably nameless. The Three Philosophers is a painting from early 16th century Italy, so the beer presumably takes its title from that, as if Blake’s characters were in the painting. If discussing the beer, Quid would question why the beer is necessary, Sipsop would question how it was possible to make such a beer, while Suction would simply enjoy the beer in all of its glory. Blake hated Suction and the materiality he represented. Obviously, the Ommegang brew squad feels differently.”

      After reading a bit about the painting, I’m not quite sure how the figures in the painting map onto Blake’s satire. (It could even be that the anecdote above is apocryphal, or that some wires got crossed along the way. Maybe I’ll shoot an e-mail to Ommegang one of these days to follow up.) Wouldn’t it have been great if the references were to folks like James, Emerson, and Dewey? Anyway, here’s a Wiki link to the painting, Giorgione’s The Three Philosophers, referenced above.

      I’m really liking the sound of those Wisconsin beers you’ve mentioned in this comment and in others.

      Reply

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