Returning for Another Sip of Terroir

I pause from reading the newspaper to take another sip of my coffee. A melange –– a Viennese classic coffee that goes by a French name sans the accent. A true mix: no single-origin beans here. This evening I’m experiencing a mélange as well: a mixture of the beloved Viennese pastime of wiling away the afternoon in an elegant setting with a coffee whose very name blurs its origins.IMG_4688

Place, authenticity, experience ––food for thought to accompany my various forms of liquid sustenance.

Tomorrow I head off on a pilgrimage of sorts: Bamberg. Extending over seven hills in the Franconian region of northern Bavaria and renowned for its medieval old town spanning the river Regnitz, Bamberg is also famous for its uniquely smoky beer. Rauchbier, a beer very much tied to a particular place.

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It’s coming on two years now since I penned the following words:

“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.”

In that series of articles, I promised to reconsider the notion of place decoupled from terroir so as to redeem a “place” for place in our discussions of craft beer. But by the time that I had critiqued the ideological underpinnings of the “buy local” movement in my “Romancing the Local,” I found that I had argued myself into a corner. These things happen. I didn’t expect that it would take me this long to get around to arguing myself out of that corner. But drinking that melange in Vienna’s Cafe Central helped turn on a few light bulbs.

Before I catch my train, here are a few propositions and questions. I’ll add some colour to this outline in the days and weeks after contemplating the smoky essence of Bamberg’s beer.

  1. In a July 2015 article for Draft, Joe Stange quotes Tim Beaumont on terroir: “Beer has terroir not for the soil in which the hops or grain are grown, but for the people in the area for whom the beer is brewed, who shape by their cultural expectations how that beer will be.” Much as I appreciate the sentiment, the statement represents a case of putting the cart before the horse. Responding, I think rightly, to Stan Hieronymus’ calls for more narratives about the people who make the beer, some craft beer writers confuse the people –– who indeed come from “a place” somewhere –– with terroir.
  1. I laud the attempts of those who resist mass-produced food and drink in the name of terroir, but I find the effort misplaced when it comes to beer. Elastic as the notion of “terroir” may be, it is not so empty a vessel that we can fill it with any content whatsoever.
  1. Consider this: Back in the day, much beer was stamped with a sense of place due to a number of factors largely beyond the control of local brewers. Nowadays, brewers in Austin are creating beers that taste just like those in Munich, and that’s a fine thing indeed for this lover of lager.

But herein lies the problem in linking craft beer and terroir: How can a well-crafted “Munich Helles” from Austin and a helles Bier from München express “unique” terroirs when they can taste virtually the same in the hands of skilled brewers in different countries?

Not a Munich Helles.

Not a Munich Helles.

  1. Here’s a two-part formulation that, I hope, will invite discussion.

Part I: Beer is not the expression of a single terroir, but rather, by the very nature of its ingredients and production processes, a mélange of terroirs. This mixture reflects the regions, climates, and topographies from which the hops and grains come from. It also reflects the philosophies of those who turn the barley, wheat, and other grains into malt, sometimes quite far from where the grains were grown. As for yeast? When it comes to wild fermentations, yeast (and their symbiotic bacteria) may well present a qualified expression of terroir. In most other cases, though, the yeast has been transposed from its original setting and reproduced in sophisticated labs for use in breweries anywhere.

The question, then, is this: What happens to terroir once the grain and hops have been mashed and boiled with water that may or may not be “of” the region and then fermented in, say, Wisconsin with a Belgian saison yeast? Does the mélange of terroirs do so much to blur any sense of individual terroir as to make the concept meaningless?

Part II: Even if we decide, ultimately, that terroir is a red herring for brewers, drinkers, and writers, the issue of craft beer and its relationship to place is still worthy of debate, as complex an issue as it is. What constitutes an “expression of place”? What are we to make of those creative brewers whose beers aren’t expressions of their own particular locale, but otherwise represent the melding of artistic brilliance with technical acumen?

Memories and experiences: Another way to think of place.

Memories and experiences: Another way to think of place.

The answer, I think, lies in the sense of a shared ethos; in other words, a shared sensibility, a shared knowledge, a shared inspiration, a local synergy.

As Ron Extract of Jester King put it when I asked him a few years back to consider claims that you can taste the “Hill Country terroir” in local favourites such as Jester King beers and Argus ciders, his response was telling: “Any similarity in taste has less to do with terroir than with a similar approach to producing our beverages.”

What is by now a transnational artisanal ethos shared by brewers from coast to coast and beyond nonetheless grounds itself in particular places. The regional stylistic variations that have emerged across North America bear this out. But this has much less to do with the soil and surrounding environment than it does with the people behind the brewing processes: the people who reinterpret existent styles, sometimes with a local twist, the people who create new styles that reflect the beer’s place of origin. A reflection of place, sure. But one that has little to do with terroir.

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Keep an eye out on Facebook and Instagram for photos from my trip to Bamberg.

Sources

Erika Bolden, “Can Craft Beer Truly Express a Sense of Place?” Punch (July 9, 2015).

Joe Stange, “Smell Your Beer: Does It Reek of Gimmickry? More Musings on Sincere Beer,” Draft (July 15, 2015).

Photos by F.D. Hofer

Related Tempest Articles

The MaltHead Manifesto

Pinning Down Place

Terroir and the Making of Beer into Wine

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

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