What is terroir?
The concept of “terroir” is usually reserved for wine. It’s the concept that the flavour of the wine is affected by soil, climate, and vineyard location. So a wine made from a grape grown at one location would have different characteristics than a wine made from the same grape grown at a different location.
The question posed in a recent article here is, does beer have terroir?
Well, before going into it, if you’re a wine person, be warned – as this website is concerned with beer, we’re really not concerned with a solid definition of terroir. We’re not trying to define beer in terms of wine so, if we get this wine concept wrong, well, it doesn’t matter. Maybe beer needs its own concept anyway.
It seems that (from a very limited amount of research), wine makers control terroir and constantly think about it when making wine. But it also seems that this is something that just comes naturally. After all, it comes from the natural conditions of the soil and a vineyard’s location.
While it doesn’t seem that many (if any) brewers are consciously taking terroir into account when brewing, once again, it’s a natural thing. And it seems to be a pretty nifty thing when thinking about craft beer: especially because a lot of craft beer drinkers take a brewery’s location into account when thinking about a beer and different areas do have distinctive styles/attitudes: Continental European beers are different from British beers which are different from East Coast American Beers, which are different from West Coast American Beers, which are different from Australian beers, and so on! This isn’t terroir, but the localisation of the general style of a beer is definitely getting there.
What makes things further interesting is to have, say, an American IPA made by an English Brewery – we had one by Crafy Dan in fact. The fact that there is even something called an “American IPA” says a lot. However, sometimes a brewery trying to brew “in the style of…” gets it wrong, something they get it right.
But… all that still isn’t terroir.
When trying to explain beer to wine people, it’s often useful to point out that hops has hundreds of varieties and that the variety of hops chosen and the combination of hops in a beer change the flavour of a beer greatly. Where a variety of hops is grown will also affect that hop – so, say, Cascade grown anywhere other than the Pacific North West will be different from Cascade grown in its home region. Here, terroir is starting to creep into beer. Brewers are already selecting hops based on the specific profile of that variety and surely have preferred hop farmers based on the quality of a particular farmer.
Similarly, the water used when brewing a beer can have a huge affect on it. For example, Irish water tends to be pretty hard (lots of minerals like calcium) and fairly alkaline, which makes it difficult to make pale beers. So the answer? Make darker beers that are more acidic to balance this out! So a beer recipe brewed with water from one region would taste different from the same recipe brewed with different water.
The same argument may also be extended to malts, but it also may not be. Malt is fairly processed and made in such bulk it’s probably fairly standardised from batch to batch. But, as drinkers come to appreciate one off batches and brewers actually take pride in the differences between batches, who knows, we may see a more artisan approach to malting grains.
Brewers are getting more and more sophisticated and, whether they know it or not, they’re already using terroir concepts in their brewing.
Does any of this matter though? Well, yes and no.
Yes because these thoughts and considerations lead to more interesting and tasty beer. No because this is wine stuff! Considerations such as terroir puts the “craft” into craft beer, which is what’s so interesting about it in the first place, but what makes craft beer even more fun is that this concept doesn’t need to be called “terroir.”
It just needs to be called finding the best ingredients to make the best possible beer, and knowing why. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there’s no need to define beer in terms of wine anyway.
All that being said, it’s something nice to think about and, if needed, there’s a word for it! The taste of a beer is changed due to terroir and it would be nice to see some brewers experimenting for tasting purposes. We already have single hop IPAs which are great for tasting and comparing specific hops. Maybe it would be more difficult, but it would be interesting to see a “terroir series” – the same recipe but brewed with different water, or the hops or grain is grown in a different region.
Or maybe that’s going too far…