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Terroir: Unearthing Common Ground

February 17, 2011

While reading a hilariously titled article in the October 2010 issue of Ale Street News, Beer Begins Reign of Terroir,” it hit me (like a ton of bricks out of nowhere) that the concept of terroir could be used to describe beer, just as it has been applied to wine for centuries.  From the French “terre,” meaning earth, terroir is the traditional belief among winemakers and connoisseurs that wine should reflect and convey the unique character of the environment from whence it came…un gout de terroir, or “taste of the soil,” if you will. Tony Forder, editor for Ale Street News, writes: “Yes, the concept of ‘terroir’ (‘dirtoir’ in Rogue lexicon) has arrived for beer. It is logical that hops, to some degree, and barley to a greater extent, will take on the characteristics of the soil they are grown in.” Soil, local water, brewery environment and aging conditions are all factors that go into shaping the terroir of a brew.

From Rogue and Sierra Nevada to Dogfish Head, the innovative brewers of the craft beer community are embracing terroir as a means of exploring untapped realms of quality, flavor, and individualism in beer.

New Belgium Brewing Co. has hit the ground running with the concept, releasing a new item in their “Lips of Faith” series named “Le Terroir.” New Belgium explains, “Le Terroir is a French term meaning ‘Of the Earth.’ Used to reference the environmental conditions that affect the brew, we like to think about the terroir of our foeders. These wooden barrels age our sour beer in varying temperatures, humidity and vibrations. The terroir of New Belgium, so to speak. Add in another variable by dry-hopping with peachy, mango-like Amarillo hops, and we created a beer that changes every time we brew it.”  Here in the states we have become dependent on macro-brews whose mantra is consistency above all else; If these beers bore me, a casual consumer, can you imagine how the brewers must feel?!?  Recognizing beer and brewing as something that doesn’t have to be wrote and mechanical, American craft breweries are having a little fun playing with the concept of terroir.

Some critics poo-poo beer  terroir claiming that the environmental conditions in which winegrapes are grown have a far more substantial effect on the final product than the environmental conditions the hops, barley and yeasts are raised have on the eventual taste of a beer.  Admittedly, the ingredients that go into making beer go through a lot more in the brewing process than your average grape in the winery.  However, I believe that if the ingredients are treated respectfully and unadulterated by too much chemical interference, something we could easily call terroir shines through the brewing process and straight into the glass.

European brewers have long recognized terroir in their products, why shouldn’t we?  Carolyn Smagalski writes, “the belief in terroir is still upheld for kölsch beers that are only available in Cologne (Köln), and for Dûsseldorf Altbier, English Ales of Burton-on Trent, and the dry stouts of Ireland. American Pale Ales of the Pacific Northwest also display a distinctive profile that would be difficult to match in other areas of the world.”  This unique character found in the Pacific Northwest is partly due to the use of Cascade hops which were actually invented in Oregon through hybridization in the early 1970’s, however Harpoon uses Cascade hops in their IPA and has a different character than IPA’s in the Pacific Northwest.  Another fellow blogger writes on his site, Diary of a Hop Head, about his experience tasting terroir in beer: “some of these session beers that are made by the micro’s are in fact being replicated by many other small breweries the length and breadth of the country… I know many of them use the same malt and hop combinations… the difference? Terroir!”

I think it is totally legitimate to “equate beer with wine with respect to class and culinary eminence,” as All About Beer put it.  From beer bars specializing in one style or region, to producers sealing beer with a cork and crown, to consumers developing beer palates and spending more money on single bottles of beer– American craft beer culture is on the rise.  Jim Koch of Sam Adams’ fame says, “We drink wine with dinner because we have come to consider classic French and Italian cuisine as the ultimate in fine dining. But these two culinary cultures are situated in the wine latitudes. We seem to have forgotten that there is a whole other food world out there…from the beer latitudes.”

At the same time that beer is upping its classiness and earning itself a prominent place on the table, wine is becoming more accessible to the average American consumer via bag-in-box, screw-top, clearly labelled & easy-to-drink wines–even champagne in a can.  That is not to say that wine is becoming less classy, just in my opinion, less pretentious.  Whether we’re talking about beer or wine, it’s just juice…and that elusive, rich, damp, flinty or mineral earthiness is just terroir.



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