What does it mean to “drink locally”?

The shadows are getting longer on this late afternoon in early autumn as I pull in from a long bike ride. I need a beer. Like most of us in North America these days, I’ll probably head down the road to the local brewery to quench my thirst or stop by a taproom that stocks a selection of beers brewed in the region.

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Many of us have heard or even uttered variations of the following: Drinking beer brewed locally connects us with the place where we live. Drinking locally is a deliberate act that signals a rejection of mass-produced wares. Beer brewed by the sweat of the brow of the folks down the road is more authentic than the fizzy liquid that flows forth from large factories across the land. Beer brewed locally tastes better. And beer brewed locally might just taste of the place in which it was brewed.

But what does it actually mean when we say we “drink local”? This is a question I have entertained since the earliest days of A Tempest in a Tankard. I started thinking about it again after reading a recent article entitled “The Next Big Thing in Beer is Being a Small Taproom.” Of course, being a small taproom means selling most, if not all, of what you brew to patrons who live within a stein’s toss of the brewery. Local is in like it hasn’t been since the days before Prohibition.

As I begin to re-formulate my thoughts on locality, place, terroir, aura, and authenticity for a few new projects, I thought it might be worthwhile to isolate questions I have couched within longer Tempest articles and pose them here in relatively open-ended form. Chime in with your thoughts!

1. Do we feel more connected to locally-brewed beer than we do to beers brewed elsewhere?

2. What do we mean when we say “authentically local”? Who and what do we exclude in this place-marking gesture?

3. What does it mean to be “local”? Is it the brewery itself, rooted in its particular place, or is it the ingredients? Does the brewery down the street brew with “locally-sourced” ingredients, or does it brew with malt from Germany, the United Kingdom, or Belgium?

4. Does the use of internationally-sourced ingredients at the brewery on the corner render its beer less “local”?

5. What are the spatial constraints of the term local? Does it refer to ingredients produced within a hundred kilometers of the brewery, or –– if the brewery is, say, Belgian –– can the term also refer to hops produced in Bavaria’s Hallertau region but used in Brussels?

6. What if your “local” beer is brewed under contract in a different region or state? Who decides, in the end, what constitutes a locally-brewed beer?

7. What about the brewer who simply can’t brew a beer with “local” ingredients? Is the beer produced at a brewery amid the warehouses of a light industrial district any less “authentically local” than the beer that contains maple syrup tapped from trees on the brewer’s land?

8. In recent years some commentators have suggested that brewers and their innovations are a more decisive component of “terroir” than the soil in which the hops or grain are grown. Does this sentiment stretch the notion of terroir to its breaking point? Or is there something to it?

9. Beer was once stamped with a sense of place due to a number of factors beyond the control of local brewers. Nowadays, brewers in Austin can create helles Bier that tastes like those brewed in München. What happens to the uniqueness of terroir when skilled brewers separated by an ocean can make beer that tastes virtually identical?

10. Beers may be a reflection of place, but can we “taste place” in beer?

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I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please take a moment to address any of these questions in the comments. Cheers!

If you’re interested in how I have approached these questions, check out the following articles:

A Reflection of Place, But Dimly

Pinning Down Place

Romancing the Local

Returning for Another Sip of Terroir

Images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2017 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “What does it mean to “drink locally”?

    1. A Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Doug, glad to hear you found yourself some Sturm in Vienna. Now that’s truly drinking local. How did you like Vienna’s version of Oktoberfest? Did you make it to Schweizerhaus while you were at O’fest?

  1. Pingback: What does it mean to “drink locally”? – Professor Good Ales

    1. Peter Ensminger

      The Farm Brewery Law of New York state (NYS) gives favorable tax status to brewers whose NYS malt and hops account for 20% of their total in 2013, 60% in 2018, and 90% in 2024. This law may have contributed to the growth in the number of our breweries. We now have 350+ breweries, 150+ of which are “farm breweries”.

      The jump from 20% to 60% of NYS malt and hops in 2018 seems to be a big step. Stay tuned …

      1. A Tempest in a Tankard Post author

        Thanks for sharing those numbers, Peter! I really like what I’ve been seeing in NYS and I’m hoping that the state manages to surpass their ambitious thresholds without sacrificing the quality of what’s in the glass. I have also spoken with a few people in various brewing-related industries in NYS who raise concerns about the quality of the raw ingredients. For example, it has been an uphill battle for maltsters to convince farmers to grow the kind of grain that the maltsters need. There are also a few reasons beyond the impact of Prohibition why hop production moved west, including more robust resistance to disease and larger yields. Given these constraints, I fully agree with you about the jump from 20% to 60% by 2018. I haven’t been to NYS for a few years now, so do keep us posted on how it all turns out!

  2. brewedculture

    These are great questions that ultimately will receive inconsistent answers. I view craft beer as a strange organism, many of whose values rely on ambiguity for their strength. The elevation of “local” beer is one of these values (other examples might be the role of capital/finance, or the use of traditional ingredients/methods). Often, I find, craft enthusiasts are willing to bend on these values when they really like the beer/brewer.

    Many people feel absolutely connected to brewers close to their homes…but will still celebrate when Stone adds distro to a new state. They travel hundreds of miles for Dark Lord Day or trade for Pliny, Heady, Darkness, etc. As much as they enjoy local beer (however they define it), they still want to taste other well-reputed beers. They also very much enjoy viewing craft beer as a national trend, something decidedly *non-local*, of which they can feel a part.

    The same applies to ingredients. Local ingredients are great and all, but not at the expense of good beer. No craft beer drinker in Kentucky wants to only drink Kentucky Commons, and unless they live by the Yakima Valley, they probably don’t want to limit themselves to local hops either. And then there are exotic adjuncts like coconut or Javanese coffee…

    The goalposts of what’s acceptable about “local beer” seem to be constantly moving. Perhaps it’s just a tool wielded selectively by marketers, and interpreted subjectively by consumers.

    1. A Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Thanks for your thought-provoking response! I think you’re bang on about “local” being a moving target.

      I have to admit that my own answers to these questions are inconsistent at times, woefully dependent on my relative proximity to iconic breweries and drinking establishments like Cantillon or Zum Uerige. I guess it’s precisely the ambiguity of these notions –– the ever-changing discourses surrounding them, their historicity, and their very “undecidability,” as it were –– that keeps me coming back for a few more drinks.

      You mention tradition, another of those slippery terms that has kept me staring into the abyss of the Reinheitsgebot. A longer piece on which I’ve been working slowly over the past few years has the provisional subtitle “Between Tradition and Innovation,” although I’m going to great lengths not to paint this as some sort of “either/or” dichotomy. Tradition, as you so eloquently point out, has also caused the Brewers Association to trip itself up on occasion as well. (For anyone reading through these comments, check out Brewed Culture’s insightful unpacking of the historical valuation of adjuncts: https://brewedculture.org/2017/09/28/whats-traditional-revisiting-history-through-adjuncts/ ).

      Time for a java stout with toasted coconut, bourbon vanilla beans, cocoa nibs, and jalapeno peppers. Cheers!

  3. beerisok

    Replying to question 2 I would say locally are places and people that live and work in your city. To be specific, Nine Band brewing was purchased by Osage Casinos and plans to have a microbrewery at the casino. This has caused issues because they share similar names/imagery to Dead Armadillo that has always been an Oklahoma native company. The confusion to uninformed consumers hurts D.A. mainly and people are led to believe Nine Band is “local”.

    1. A Tempest in a Tankard Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Brian! Since you’re one of the most prominent and well-respected promoters of beer in Oklahoma, I’m wondering about how far the boundaries of “local” extend for you. You mentioned the city in your comment, but is it maybe all of Oklahoma for you?

      I don’t know anything about the purchasing history of Nine-Band Brewing (you can fill me in next time we see each other) … but given that Osage Casinos are located in Oklahoma and are planning on building a microbrewery at the casino, wouldn’t that then qualify Nine-Band as a “local” brewery? (I’m playing devil’s advocate here because I see some of the issues surrounding the purchase of an existing Texas brewery and subsequent establishment of a satellite brewery elsewhere.)

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