Tag Archives: beer and place

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.

****

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.

__________

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.

Tempest Turns Nine Months Young: An Index of Writing to Date

Cue up all the old clichés about time’s swift passage, for it has been three-quarters of a year now since I posted my first article on A Tempest in a Tankard. Thanks for all the support over these past several months! I’ve learned plenty from all of your insightful comments.IMG_9931 I’ve also learned much just by traveling around to do the interviews and research for Tempest’s articles, to say nothing of the people I’ve met who have led some fascinating lives. No two brewers took the same journey to their brew kettles and fermenters.

On the occasion of Tempest’s nine-month birthday, I’m putting together an index of articles that I’ve written to date. I’ve decided to do this for a few reasons. First and foremost, I’d like to introduce newer readers of Tempest to some of the previous articles buried deep in the virtual archives of the blog.

Second, I don’t really write pieces that are “of the moment.” I’d like to think that much of what I write––brewery profiles, travelogues, recipes, reflections on craft beer and culture, beer evaluations––has utility beyond the few days after I post it. Blogs are sequential by nature, making navigation difficult even with the aid of the categories listed across the top of Tempest’s home page.IMG_0153 Pieces written months ago tend to get lost under the weight of a temporality that favours the most recent post.

Finally, I don’t usually write my serial posts sequentially, so an index will give me the opportunity to group series pieces together––and will give you the opportunity to read them as a series, if you so choose. With a few weeks left of summer travel, the regional spotlights and brewery profiles are particularly timely.

I’ll post this index in two installments. First on deck is a list of my articles on beer and culture, together with my regional spotlights. Next up: a list of my brewery profiles and beer reviews, along with recipes I’ve posted to date for those interested in cooking and food/beverage pairings.

If you haven’t already signed up to have A Tempest in a Tankard’s articles delivered via e-mail, please consider subscribing so you can read the articles as they’re posted. Cheers!

Reflections on Beer and Culture

Never the Twain Shall Meet?

My very first article for A Tempest in a Tankard, one that I posted when I had all of three regular visitors to the site. The article answers a provocation unleashed by another beer blogger on the occasion of a monthly beer writers’ forum called The Session. The question: “What the hell has America done to beer?, AKA, USA versus Old World Beer Culture.”

Celebration Time? Women in the Craft Beer World

Times, they are a changing, but the gender gap is still quite wide in the craft beer world, especially on the marketing end. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every time someone told me that women prefer fruity beers.

Drinking Lager in an Age of Extreme Taste

A few thoughts on how our taste is shaped by trends and tastemakers. I don’t mind hops, and Imperial Stouts are up there among my favourite beer styles. But by indulging our drive toward ever more intense and novel flavours, we have, perhaps, devalued more subtle beer styles in the process.

Terroir and the Making of Beer into Wine

Guest writer Kevin Goldberg’s insightful piece debunking the notion of terroir, which generated so much interesting discussion that I wasn’t able to confine my own response to the comments section of the article.

The following three articles approach the notion of place and locality from different angles. A fourth piece will appear at some point that redeems some elements of the notion of beer and place.

Of Isinglass and Other Fine Additives

This response to the “Food Babe’s” article on the “shocking” ingredients in beer is my most widely-read piece to date, likely because the issue of fish bladder in beer flares up at regular intervals on the interwebs.

Celebrating Craft Lager Day

As much as it is an article on a particular beer (Kapsreiter Landbier), it also represents a challenge to prevailing sentiments that sometimes confuse IBU levels with quality.

The Curiosity Cabinet

Donuts? Bacon? Ancient recipes? Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée features here, but expect other articles on beers in my curiosity cabinet in the coming months.

City and Regional Spotlights

Austin: A User’s Guide for the Craft Beer Enthusiast:

This is a comprehensive series that you can take with you as you visit Austin. Break it down into parts, or read the series as a whole.

  • Part I––Brewpubs
  • Part II––Breweries. Saké, too.
  • Part III––Taprooms and Bottle Shops. Craft Pride and Sunrise Mini-Mart. ’Nuf said.
  • Part IV––Tempest’s Tankard Ratings and the Best Brews in Austin. The tankard system unveiled. You’ll see more of this in the future, much as I dislike ranking beers.

The Epic Stillwater to Vancouver Road Trip, Spring 2014:

  • Tempest Hits the Open Road: Dispatches from the Beerways of North America. Not much about beer, but the piece––one of my personal favourites––lays the groundwork for the rest of my Stillwater-Vancouver road trip this past April and May.
  • Wyoming––A Snapshot from a Moving Vehicle. Cheyenne kicks things off, followed by Coal Creek in Laramie.
  • Idaho and Montana––Of Roadtrips and Aleways. I’ve always been fascinated by the routes we travel. The “discovery” of this trip is Trickster’s Brewing in Coeur d’Alene. Missoula has plenty to offer, too, including Kettle House’s Cold Smoke Scotch Ale.

Gorges and Good Beer in Ithaca and Environs:

  • Part I: A brief history of the Ithaca area, followed by a visit to Ithaca’s oldest craft brewery.
  • Part II: Includes features of the newer faces on Ithaca’s craft beer scene: Bandwagon Brewpub, Hopshire, and Rogues’ Harbor.
  • Part III: A guide to some of the best craft beer watering holes and bottle shops in Ithaca.

IMG_1114

Images:

Capital Brewery (near Madison, WI): F.D. Hofer

Malted grain at FarmHouse Malt (Newark Valley, NY): F.D. Hofer

Hop bines and grape vines at Abandon Brewing Co. (Penn Yann, NY): F.D. Hofer