Tuesday 13 June 2023

Terroir - putting the locally sourced boot in

All beer geeks like to occasionally have something that reminds us of when we were first getting into craft beer, so I enjoyed seeing some proper Beer Discourse triggered by a Matt Curtis article yesterday.

The thrust of the article, which I broadly agree with, is that beer is unavoidably a product of essentially industrial processes, and hence that to try to ape (parts of) the wine world in aspiring to some sort of "low intervention" beer that "expresses place" through the agriculturally-derived character of its ingredients is fundamentally wrongheaded. (Some interesting criticism of the article has been from the angle that this is equally wrongheaded in the wine-world too, but that's another story...)

As someone who's been banging the "agricultural terroir in beer is bollocks" drum since the days when Matt was enthusiastically evangelizing for it, I feel like I've got some right to stick my oar in with my own take on the topic.

I think if I was going to characterize my brand of terroir-scepticism, I'd say that it starts from the fact that I don't believe that the link between flavours derived from the growing conditions and the character of the place where those growing conditions occur is particularly intuitive to humans, and hence that using hyperlocal ingredients isn't particularly interesting from the point of view of the stuff in the glass. If you have a local farm that produces hops with a specific interesting flavour then that's great, if you have local microflora that include yeast with unique and interesting character then that's fantastic, but there's no intrinsic reason that beer produced with those hops or that yeast will evoke the place where you brewed it any more than if you'd shipped the same hops or the same yeast starter halfway across the country to brew with them. Wine drinkers have had years of training themselves to associate this flavour profile with that landscape, beer drinkers haven't and aren't going to do that any time soon, not least because so many other variables are inevitably at play in the flavour of beer.

There's been a lot of pushback against Matt's article and in favour of the idea of terroir in beer. I think the idea is alluring because it seems to give us a way out of the sense of international homogenization that has come with the era of ubiquitous NEIPA (and before that with ubiquitous industrial lager, and probably before that with Burton IPA and London Porter) but for me it's unsatisfying because the sort of variation induced by local ingredients is essentially arbitrary. I'm far more interested in the sort of local-specificity that comes about when people use whatever ingredients and processes they want, but tailor their products to the preferences of local drinkers and the nature of local drinking to produce a beer that reflects the human culture of their area as well as the soil chemistry. The use of hyperlocal ingredients seem not just irrelevant to this, but potentially counterproductive as it often seems to manifest itself in mixed fermentation, fruit beers and other nontraditional flavours that are mostly of interest to a geographically dispersed audience of beer geeks and not to many drinkers in your immediate locality.

Fundamentally, I think there are plenty of good reasons to work with small and/or local suppliers, but the idea that doing so will let you magically bottle the essence of your surroundings isn't one of them.

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