Monday, 27 October 2008

Terroir

There's a lot of resistance in the beer world to the idea of terroir. The concept that certain beers belong to a specific location. And it's not just from big brewers, wanting to shift production around as it suits them. New brewers like to think they can brew any style in world, no matter where their brewery happens to be located.

EU attempts to protect certain beer types have been met with derision in the US. Why can't you brew a Kölsch in Colorado, a Münchner in Minnesota, a lambic in Los Angeles? Ignoring the fact that a microbrewery may well lack the necessary equipment to brew an authentic version, some styles are about more than the chemical composition of the liquid in your glass. There's a social context, too. That can be just as important to the drinking experience - and enjoyment - as the beer itself.

Stephen Beaumont said something very telling to me at the weekend: "I never got Kölsch until I went to Cologne." I know exactly what he means. Looked at in isolation, Kölsch isn't of itself particularly exciting. Yet who fails to succumb to its charms when sitting in Früh or Malzmühle, as the Köbes, rings of foaming glasses held aloft, dance through the crowds of merry tipplers? The tiny glasses, jam-packed pubs and blue-clad waiters are an essential part of the experience. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, they're a liar or an idiot.

Looking back, I can think of many similar experiences. At 9:30 on a Monday morning, sitting in the brewery tap surrounded by weirdoes, Hebendanz Export is the nectar of the gods. At home, alone, on a wet and windy Wednesday, it's just a well-made lager.

Beer is about a lot more than just beer. It's about people and places, too. That's why the concept of terroir does apply to beer. We should all rejoice in and respect that.

19 comments:

Tandleman said...

Well said Ron.

couchand said...

You are correct, that there is more to beer and beer culture than the liquid itself.

But there is not more to a style description than the characteristics of the brew.

How should I refer to a beer I make that is (intrinsically) like the ones they make in Cologne, even if I'm missing the pubs and waiters? It seems the most efficient way to convey that message is to call it a kölsch.

Ron Pattinson said...

couchand, obergäriges helles Lagerbier.

A style is also more than just the OG, FG and bitterness units. How many "Kölsches" made outside Germany are actually lagered?

Stan Hieronymus said...

How many "Kölsches" made outside Germany are actually lagered?

You might be surprised by the number of homebrews that are. Not that it makes them Kölsches.

The Woolpack Inn said...

Indeed! a beer is always better drunk in a pub, not because the beer itself is better, although it may be, but because you are with friends.

So how could I argue with that one?

Although I have a very nice "Dopplebock" brewed by a friend, I don't know if it's as good as the "real" thing, but it's nice. And it's definitely lagered.

Edward said...

Totally agree, though I wonder if the link between place and taste is stronger for some styles than others? NZ has few genuinely 'indigenous' beer styles (if any) and yet the lack of these doesn't totally detract from the enjoyment of a beer down the pub. Are some beer styles or beer experiences more exportable than others - less tied to terroir?

Anyway - Altbier in Duesseldorf falls in a similar category as the Koelsch example for me. I can brew a pretty close version of alt at home but it isn't the same drinking experience at all, even in the right glass.

Another example in my drinking life that was quite stark was how ouzo can taste quite outstanding after a day in the sun on a greek beach. My wife and I would buy a bottle to take back to London and it would tend to languish in the cabinet, as it usually tasted so flat, lifeless and simply out of place.

RunawayJim said...

I was always under the impression that with wine, "terroir" referred to the place the beer was made, the environmental factors (the soil, for example). With beer, this is a little different. The only environmental factor involved would likely be the water, which makes a huge difference (part of the reason why Guinness brewed in Canada tastes different than Guinness brewed in Dublin).

Sure, the atmosphere in which you are drinking a beer can have an effect on your perception, but the beer in and of itself is the same no matter where and how it is consumed. This isn't terroir.

I'd say there are plenty of American Kolsches that are lagered.

My point is, you can't really tell someone they're not drinking a true Kolsch or Alt simply because they're not drinking it in a crowded bar in Germany. Sure, that atmosphere might make those styles seem much different (along with having actual German renditions of the style).

I half agree with you, but your terminology isn't correct. Terroir would be the environmental conditions that go into the actual ingredients and brewing (with wine, it's the soil, climate, and general environment at the vineyard).

Joe said...

Amen from a US brewer. Part of the issue may be that a local brewer can brew, for example, a Pilsner that tastes a lot better than Pilsner Urquell after a sea voyage. The local version may not have a strong resemblance to fresh beer in the Czech Republic, but that's no reason to not brew it. Maybe it is a reason to name it something other than 'Pilsner'.

Zak said...

I agree with Ron, and while terroir isn't quite the right word, I know exactly what he means - I'm sure that there is a German word that expresses this concept perfectly, but I forget what it is. Actually, due to the German technique of concatenating small words to make bigger, more expressive words, there is probably a word in German for anything and everything. It's a bit like gemutlich, I think. Lets make up a word for it, shall we?

I was in Copenhagen recently, and had a glass of the low-pressure Carlsberg Lager at Vinstue 90. The beer itself was pretty unimpressive (mine actually had quite a pronounced metallic taint), but the smoky, red-panelled bar and friendly but slightly mad locals made it into a proper beer experience (but only just).

Tandleman said...

How about "heimat" Zack? Home, but more than home. Sort of.

Interesting to see the more open views expressed by some. But Ron, in essence is right about beer and its identity.

Zak said...

Heimat. Hmm, I was thinking of something with at least half a dozen more syllables!

Jim Johanssen said...

Ron - I’m going with Terroir being about the beer’s Water, Hops, Malt/Grain and Brewing Techniques. The Bar’s Terroir is the buildings location, layout, color, smells, tactile feel,inhabitants, and sounds. No two ever seem to be the same and very hard to reproduce.
I think what Mr. Beaumont was getting at is the symbiosis of the beer and the place, how the beer is affected by the place and the place by the beer. Removing either from the other the experience is greatly reduced and its meanings are lost.
On the brewing at other locations I find that the brewers miss key elements of the style when making their copy. Some it is the Lagering, others is the ingredients and others is the other brewing techniques.

I like Mr. Beaumont’s Terroir of the Bar theory and its symbiosis with the beer.

Cheers
Jim

Mark Andersen said...

Of course this would be met with derision in the US. If we can't brew a beer style that originated somewhere else then we'd have nothing to brew. That wouldn't be okay.

That being said I agree totally with your comments. Feel free to brew an Altbier if you like, but if you really want to experience the style at its best (social context included), then go to Dusseldorf (and/or the surrounding area).

Catador said...

What if you have an US obergäriges helles lagerbier and flight to a bar in Köln to drink it, what did you drink? And if you buy a kölsch vom fass at a bar but go drink it at the irish pub next door?

Drinking beer can be such a complex experience that sometimes to put a label on it can be inaccurate. A label won´t change the experiencie anyway.

Andrew Elliott said...

mark andersen said:

"Of course this would be met with derision in the US. If we can't brew a beer style that originated somewhere else then we'd have nothing to brew. That wouldn't be okay."

Of course we'd have somthing to brew... we'd just have to be a bit more original and come up with something of our own, a new "style" per-se. I don't brew to style, I brew to make good beer with a certain flavor profile that I really want to taste. I tend to brew using German techniques (decoction mashing & lagering), but I consider myself an American brewer.

Edward pointed it out quite well... My beer is best enjoyed at my home, with friends, just as Kölsch is best enjoyed in Köln and Altbier is enjoyed in Dusseldorf. Drinking my beer over there would be about like drinking those beers over here -- it would still be good, but missing the atmosphere that makes it truly great.

Wurst aka Whorst said...

Yes, this is very much like enjoying a Corona with lime, while wearing a speedo, just before performing a cliff dive in Mexico. You just can't get the same effect at home.

Beer is a complex experience? It largely depends on the person drinking it I suppose.

You folks are &*^%$ nuts.

Ron Pattinson said...

wurst, you've got the idea perfectly. Do you want me to reserve you a straight-jacket?

Wurst aka Whorst said...

Yeah, a straight jacket and some pills.

Andrew Elliott said...

www.bjcp.org... hmm... interesting post... wtf is style, anyways? Perhaps a "Terroir" for how beers are made?

ok, not meant to be a trolling post... back to drinking my negra modelo (i'd never stoop to corona) and enjoying my cliff-diving. No comments on the "Wurst" in the speedo....