Tag Archives: place

Pinning Down Place

“Pinning Down Place” is Part II of my series on place and locality. For Part I, “A Reflection of Place, But Dimly,” click here. For Part III, “Romancing the Local,” click here.

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. Augustiner Stein (FB pg)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. IMG_8756I 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. Hops (auer-bier dot de)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. Augustiner Sudhaus (FB pg)

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

Hops: www.auer-bier.de

Brewhouse: Augustiner Bräustübl Salzburg Mülln (Facebook Page)

A Reflection of Place, But Dimly (Part I)

One of my favourite food and beverage combinations is a glass of Manzanilla accompanied by shrimp sautéed in olive oil and garlic, dusted with Pimentón de la Vera, and finished with a shot of Oloroso. IMG_9751The bracingly dry sea-breeze crispness is the perfect foil to the smoky richness of the shrimp. Manzanilla comes from Sanlúcar, a coastal town in Andalucía situated not far from the inland focal point of sherry production, Jerez de la Frontera. Could it be Sanlúcar’s location, buffeted by Mediterranean breezes, that accounts for the salinity of these delicate Manzanillas?

When it comes to other wines that both pair with a wide variety of foods and are perfectly drinkable on their own, I can’t think of too many wines better than a Riesling from the Mosel or Rheingau regions of Germany. Acidity balances sweetness, and the stone fruit aromas and flavours are offset by a refreshing minerality. Touring the villages along the sleepy Mosel River, it’s difficult not to be struck by all the slate roofs. Perhaps this abundance of slate in the area has contributed something to that refreshing mineral quality of a fine Riesling. 100-3066_IMG

In all of these cases and in many more I could enumerate, who can deny the influence of place, geography, climate, location, and – dare I say – terroir?

But as Kevin Goldberg’s recent guest article for Tempest makes clear, terroir is a problematic notion charged with emotive sentiment – as much an article of faith as it is a product of soil, water, and other environmental factors.

If terroir is a tattered term in the world of wine, it arrives at the door of the craft beer world even worse for wear. Not many brewers in North America have the luxury of sourcing their own ingredients within a hundred kilometers of their brewery. And once even they set to work on the grain, hops, and water that eventually become beer, so many human interventions along the way turn the finished product into something that we can’t really call, in good faith, an “expression of terroir.”

Goldberg’s insightful critique of terroir in wine may well have put paid to the notion of terroir and craft beer; even so, the association of beer and “place” seems to be an idea that more of us craft beer enthusiasts are prepared to entertain. I consider myself one of these people. But I still have my reservations about the notion of beer as an “expression of place” or a “sense of place.” What’s more, I’m wary about how hastily some of us rush to substitute “place” for “terroir” without reflecting on how prickly the notion of place itself can be.

On the surface of it, place is simple enough, commonplace, as it were. Something we talk about all the time. Where are you right now? Where are you going later? But not unlike Augustine’s meditation on time in his Confessions, place, too, becomes increasingly complex the more we consider it. Place evokes the hearth, the safety of time spent among kith and kin. We become attached to places, even long for them nostalgically. Like its counterpart, space, place is something to which humans attach meaning. And meaning-making can take on ideological hues. Space is infinity, a limitless horizon. But it also marks the limit of our sense of place. The frontier. The other. He or she who is not of my locale, my place. As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan puts it: “Spaces are marked off and defended against intruders. Places are centers of felt value.” There’s no place like home, said Dorothy when she returned from Oz.

Kronborg Castle (Wiki)But what is it that lends a particular locality its aura? In pondering the question, Tuan recounts an anecdote about the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s visit to Kronborg Castle in Denmark. “Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here?” remarked Bohr to Heisenberg. “As scientists, we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stones, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and the ramparts speak a quite different language.”

To drink, or not to drink. Does a beer’s provenance matter? Where is this beer made? Does it, too, exude an aura? Where were the hops grown? Is the raw grain from Germany, the U.K., or Canada? What of the malt? Is the beer local, authentically so? Weyermann Malt Bags (weyermann-de)What do we mean when we say “authentically local”? Who and what do we exclude with these invocations of place?

What started out as a collection of thoughts for a longish comment to Goldberg’s critique of terroir has turned into an essay of sorts, one that I’ll post on Tempest in three parts. Part I, which you have just read, attempts to frame the complexity of place. Part II subjects the notion of place to critical scrutiny. Part III steps back from critique and offers suggestions for how we can make “place” a meaningful part of the craft beer discussion – and not merely another marketing term. I start from the assumption that, save for the possible exception of cases having to do with wild fermentation, we can’t “taste place” in our beer. 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.



Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977).

Image Sources:

Kronborg Castle: Wikipedia

Weyermann Malt: www.weyermann.de