Terroir is for Weirdos, and other Place Lessons from Beer

Beer is playing catch-up. Craft brews have recently begun earning the kind of respect, devotion, bottles, and prices heretofore reserved for grape-derived beverages: the so-called “wine-ification of beer.” Respect and devotion leads to sensory analysis, and – in our oenophilic culture – sensory analysis leads to terroir. And terroir leads to controversy. Whether beer can have terroir is an open question. I think that it can – or, as I’d rather say, that terroir provides a useful context for thinking about beer – and that thinking about terroir in beery terms can teach oenophiles some useful lessons about what we mean when we talk about sense of place.

Defining our terms

The simplest definition of terroir is “expression of a sense of place.” Some beer absolutely qualifies. But if we assume that having terroir means “made with ingredients exclusively from the one place in question,“ we’ve excluded nearly every beer – maybe all of it, depending on how strict we’re being. Then again, we’ve excluded all wine, too.

The fuzziness comes from how we define “ingredient.” For wine, the non-negotiables are grapes and yeast. For beer: malted grain, hops, water, yeast, and possibly extra flavorings. But those are hardly the only things that go into making either beverage. Oak barrels, staves, and chips add flavor. Sulfur dioxide adds stability. Sugar and acid sometimes add balance, as does water. Bentonite (a type of clay, mostly mined in South Dakota and Wyoming in the U.S.) and isinglass (from fish bladders) add clarity. How much of this needs to come from one place for the final beverage to express a sense of that place? Do non-regional additions dilute or destroy the potential for terroir? And if culture is also a part of terroir, then does the winemaker need to have come from the area or have been raised up in local techniques? Do the cellar hands need to have been born and raised nearby? These aren’t new questions, but thinking about beer helps us get a different – and more useful – handle on answering them.pub-hop

Different roads to terroir

Beer can take multiple roads to something we could fairly call terroir. The extraordinarily hard road is to construct a beer out of (main) ingredients entirely from one location. This strategy is embodied by the Rogue Brewing Company, which turns out an extensive roster of exceptional brews from a modest little outpost in Newport, Oregon. They have their own strain of house yeast (the delightfully-monikered Pacman) and use the local “free range coastal water,” neither of which is too unusual. But, for their Rogue Farms line, they also grow their own malting barley and rye, their own hops, and even their own pumpkins, jalapenos, and roses for respectively-flavored beers. (They also have chickens, pigs, turkeys, and honeybees but these, thankfully, don’t seem to have found their way into the tank. Yet.) Very few breweries have the resources, the supply chain security, or the inclination to follow suit.

The much easier way is to flavor your beer with some highly characteristic local ingredient. This strategy is embodied by small craft brewers across the country, home brewers in garages everywhere, and some well-known examples from the larger guys. An example to make any locavore proud is Beers Made by Walking, a periodic project to make beers “inspired by plants found on nature walks in Oregon.” Recent examples include ales flavored with rose hips, yarrow, or red cedar tips. Fraoch is a more mainstream example, a Scottish ale made with very Scottish heather and bogmyrtle. Rogue even makes a Voodoo bacon (oops; there are the pigs) maple ale – in collaboration with Portland’s famous Voodoo Donut people and using some of their donut ingredients – which, presumably, expresses a sense of Portland, even though that’s not where the maple syrup was made. According to beer, terroir isn’t just about local ingredients. It’s about sense of place.

Extreme terroir isn’t very useful

It’s easy to argue that most beer doesn’t have terroir because they’re not going to Rogue-like lengths to source all of their ingredients locally. How can a beer have terroir when the barley was grown in Nebraska, malted in Wisconsin, and brewed in Texas with hops grown in Washington state, even if a few Texas peaches do get tossed in toward the end? An increasing number of micro-malters processing more or less local grain for more or less local breweries are helping to change part of this transit chain, but these operations still bow to the regional nature of the commercial grain industry.  Even Rogue condescends to the physical constraints of the Oregon climate: they grow their grains, hops, and other such things at a farm in Independence, Oregon, some 75 miles north and east of the Newport Rogue HQ.

And yet I can attest to the taste difference between Guinness drunk in a bar in Rochester, New York and Guinness drunk in a bar in Doolin, County Clare, Ireland. Differences in local water sometimes cause soda drinkers to remark on differences in how Coke tastes depending on where it’s bottled. By the same logic, I could argue that a hamburger at the local McDonalds has terroir because they make them just a bit differently in my part of New Zealand (they do, I’ve been told), or because someone who works there has a unique hand with the mustard.

Wine appreciators often tend to romanticize the notion of wine from a place, thinking solely of the grapes and ignoring everything else that contributes to the wine, or that the winery may be hundreds of miles from the vineyards. Beer appreciators largely seem to recognize that beer can come to own a sense of place without every ingredient coming out of the brewery’s backyard. Terroir is about being able to identify sensory characteristics that uniquely identify a beverage’s origins, not about winning a more-local-than-thou contest.

Terroir is constructed

In 1660, Lord Arneau III de Pontac decided to bottle the wine from his vineyards in Haut-Brion with the name of the vineyard on the bottle, and separately from the rest of the vineyards he owned elsewhere in Bordeaux. By doing so, he made terroir possible. Heretofore, wines were mixed to suit taste and budget, both with wine from other places and even non-grape ingredients. You might like “claret” or “Rhenish wine” or barrels from a specific merchant, but the concept of a vineyard as anything other than a field just didn’t exist. “Hobrian” became an expensive and prized luxury item in England, and the wine industry tiptoed into a structural revolution.

Beer today is like wine was in the 17th century. With grain a commodity product mixed willy-nilly on the market and judged by protein and ash standards – not unlike wine was once judged by color and alcohol strength. Any regional characteristics from different fields are subsumed under, well, waves of rolling grain. You can make the argument that wine grapes express more regional variation than barley, but I have no doubts that more field-to-field grain variation exists than we ever think to notice. We’ve been trained to look for differences in grapes, not grains. That could change. What 17th century imbiber, after all, could have imagined a world in which we not only bottle the produce of individual vineyard blocks separately but then exclaim over and celebrate the differences between them? In 2214, our great-great-great-great-grandkids may be comparing exquisite estate-bottled Hefeweizen from neighboring wheat fields.

And hops? We already recognize regional variations in this crop, and connoisseurship could easily take that level of discrimination higher. Terroir is a socially constructed idea; we see differences when we look for them.

Google n-gram for "terroir" showing usage in English text since 1800.
Google n-gram for “terroir” showing usage in English text since 1800.

Terroir is for weirdos

Beverages can express a sense of place in small or partial ways. In this sense, terroir is for everyone and everything. But if we restrict that concept just a little and think about terroir as a sense of what a place is like rather than just noticeable difference based on the water, then terroir is for weirdos.

The best-selling beers in the United States are Bud Light, Bud, Coors Light, Natural Light, Busch Light, Busch… To satisfy their enormous production needs, these companies source grains and malts from a constantly-flexing roster of multiple locations. Ditto with the hops. And while these were once regional products made at a single brewery with a specific water source, they’re now international products with multiple brewery locations using water stripped and processed to spec to ensure uniformity. These beers don’t have terroir. In fact, they’re deliberately aiming not to have terroir.

The best-selling wines in the United States are commodities manufactured to spec, even if they have a place name on the label. Vintage-to-vintage variations are massaged into the same necessary flavor profile by expert blenders working with a workbench full of individual wines. In a sense, these are 17th century wines made by a distributer to satisfy the needs of a thirsty consumer base who know what they want and expect it with every bottle (even if elderberries for color and lead for sweetness went out of fashion three hundred years ago).

The vast majority of what’s drunk doesn’t have terroir, and that’s okay. The function of those beverages is quick refreshment, not mental nourishment. Terroir is a useful concept because it gives us a tool for seeing difference. Thinking about what we taste as reflective of place allows us to observe more and differently. It’s one of Aristotle’s famous ways of making an argument: a topos, a place for thinking. Terroir isn’t an intrinsic property of a beverage; it’s a way of looking at it. Beer makes that obvious: every beer or no beer can have terroir depending on how we use the term, and since it isn’t wine, we have fewer preconceptions about what we’re supposed to think.

So what would happen if we thought about terroir as a tool when we talk about wine, and let ourselves do the same when we’re drinking a good craft brew? I dare say that we would observe more, be less hampered by expectations, and sound a whole lot less elitist.