Monthly Archives: August 2014

Provenance and sense of place in beer

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Beers come from lots of different places. So do wines.

With wine there is the concept of ‘terroir': the idea that the flavour of wine is, in part, determined by its vineyard origin. It’s a really interesting concept: one that operates at different scales, and brings in disciplines such as geology, biology and even anthropology. The proof of terroir is that when wines are made from adjacent vineyards, in the same winery, by the same winemaking technique, from the same grape variety, the differences you taste between them are down to the terroir. So we talk of the place being reflected in the wine, and we like the notion that – in some mysterious way – a glass of wine can taste of the place it comes from. This somewhereness is at the heart of our aesthetic system of fine wine. But does somewhereness extend to beer?

Beer is a manufactured drink. The same brewery can make a range of beers that taste very different depending on the intentions of the brewer. Wine is different: although winemakers can do things to change the flavour of the wine they make, wine quality is largely dependent on the character and quality of the grapes. You can make a bad wine from good grapes but you can’t make a good wine from bad grapes. So any attempt to attribute somewhereness to beer would seem to be in vain.

But we need to look a little more deeply. While the concept of terroir is valid for wine, some part of the terroir mechanism is in fact cultural, as opposed to being determined solely by the vineyard site. The somewhereness that we attribute to wine is because we have become used to the sorts of wines that a particular region specializes in. We associate flavour with place through a process of entrainment. And there is also the complexing factor of different varieties of grapes expressing terroir in very different ways. A typical Central Otago Pinot Noir speaks to me of Central Otago the region, but that’s only because of the associations I have made with this style of Pinot and my visits to the place. Central Otago Riesling can be very fine, but I haven’t learned to associate Riesling with the region, so for me it doesn’t taste of Central Otago. Maybe in the future?

Even if beer is manufactured, there’s nothing to stop it having a sense of place. This sense of place isn’t normally determined by the physical characteristics of the locality, and not all beers have to express place for them to be great. [In contrast, most fine wines taste of where they come from.] But for many beer styles, there is a link between them and their region and country of origin which is cultural and historical. I don’t like Guinness, but it has a strong association with Ireland. A sense of place, if you will. Belgian Abbey beers taste Belgian. Weissbier tastes German. And cask bitter tastes of England.

What’s interesting is that this sense of place can belong to a beer even if that beer is brewed elsewhere. Hoppy American-style IPAs can taste American even when they are brewed in London, for example. This is very different to wine.

There is, however, a way that place has expressed itself in beer in the past, and this is in the characteristics of the local water. Water is at the heart of beer terroir.

Water is an important part of brewing, and these days most brewers will adjust the character of the water they use depending on what beer style they are brewing. In the past, though, it mattered a lot. The town of Burton on Trent was a particularly important brewing town accounting for a quarter of the UK’s brewing production, largely because the mineral content of its water was particularly suitable for brewing pale ales, with very high calcium and sulfate levels. The alkalinity of water in Dublin made it unsuitable for paler beers, but ideal for stouts. The water in Pilsen, in the Czech republic, is much better suited for pale lagers. So many of the traditional beer styles found in Europe reflect the suitability of the local water for those styles. This, I suppose, is beers sense of terroir.

In conclusion, for wine, sense of place is a critical factor. For beer, it needn’t be. But beer can possess somewhereness, and this is where local styles have, through time, become associated with a particular region or country. In part, these styles established themselves in the way they did because of the suitability of the local water for brewing those beer types. These days beer is moving away from being a commodity or staple, and is now regarded as a gourmet product with consumers at the high end looking for interesting flavours and new experiences. This is something craft or micro breweries are responding to, and now we see the same breweries producing a range of styles of quite contrasting beers, with few roots in local, traditional beer styles. This isn’t automatically a bad thing: it’s quite possible to appreciate the traditional classics while also loving the new styles of beer. And it’s also nice to see new interpretations of the classic styles. It is an exciting time for beer.

Mikkeller 20, a brilliant beer

mikkeller 20

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø is a beer legend. A physics and maths teacher turned brewer. He’s a gypsy brewer, in that he doesn’t have his own brewery, but most of his beers are made at de Proef Brouwerij in Belgium. This Mikkeller 20 is one of the beers made there, and it’s quite fabulous.

Mikkeller 20
6.8% alcohol
Lively, fruity, citrussy with some herby hoppiness on the nose. Fresh, lively, herby palate with nice grassy grip. Quite structured. Nicely savoury and focused with good weight. Not too showy, with nice balance of richness and texture. 8.5/10

Founders Brewing Breakfast Stout

founders brewing breakfast stout

A beer that describes itself as a double-coffee oatmeal stout would not be first on my list of ‘must try’ brews. It sounds pretty horrible, to be honest: the beer equivalent of the horrid coffee Pinotages that have emerged from South Africa in recent years. But I am an open-minded sort of guy, willing to give all sorts of beers a try, especially when they are recommended by a trusted source, as this one was.

It’s made by Founders Brewing from Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the USA’s most awarded craft breweries. It is bewed with an blaked oats, chocolate, and coffee, and it has 60 IBUs (which is quite a lot of bitterness, but with the alcohol and flavour, it handles this well). With wine, I can’t stand the thought of adding flavourings. With beer, I’m open to the idea.

Founders Brewing Breakfast Stout
8.3% alcohol
Dark coloured, with amazing flavours of coffee, chocolate and sice. Dense, bold and rich with real intensity. A remarkable beer that just seems to work. 9/10

Some great beers from Beavertown

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We’ve reviewed a couple of Beavertown’s offerings on Beeranorak already (here) – well, at least Daniel has. I thought it was time for me to add some views on their range, which I think is really exciting. They’re based in Hackney, in a part known as De Beauvoir Town, hence ‘Beavertown’, which is the cockney reference to this area, which in Victorian times was known for its bars and breweries.

The brewery was established by Logan Plant and Byron Knight in 2011, and in 2012 they opened a brew pub, Duke’s Brew & Que. Everything I have tried from them so far has been excellent.

Beavertown Gamma Ray American Pale Ale
5.4% alcohol
This is a beer on which Daniel and I disagree. It’s beautifully aromatic, floral and tangy, with grapefruit and herbs in the mix, too. It has a lovely savoury, tangy palate with grapefruit, lemon and spice. Real precision and focus here. 8.5/10

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Beavertown 8 Ball Rye IPA
6.2% alcohol
Malts: Simpsons Best, Rye, Crystal Rye, CaraGold, Low colour Crystal. Hops: Magnum, Columbus, Cascade, Citra, Galaxy. 50 IBUs. There’s about 20% rye in this delicious, distinctive beer. Rich, warm and textured with a nice sweet, tangy, malty base, and precise citrus and herb notes, finishing rich, warm and spicy. 8.5/10

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Beavertown Bloody Ell Blood Orange IPA
7.4% alcohol
This is a really creative beer, brewed with 25 kg of blood oranges, which were hand-peeled, with the squeezed juice added at the end of the boil. An extra pale malt was used. Amazing aromas of orange peel, lemons, spice and tropical fruits. Lovely palate with sweet tangerine notes, as well as some lemon. Powerful, intense and amazingly fruity with real personality. 8.5/10

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Beavertown Black Betty Black IPA
7.4% alcohol
Malt: Simpsons Best, Caragold, Caramalt, Carafa II, Carafa III. Hops: Magnum, Columbus, Chinook, Citra. 60 IBUs. Rich, powerful, bold and dense with lovely sweet, subtly chocolatey notes and some malt. Amazing depth of flavour combining the rich notes with a tangy citrus freshness. 8/10

Beavertown Smog Rocket Smoked Porter
5.4% alcohol
Malt: Simpsons Best, Smoke, Caramalt, Crystal, Oats, Munich, Brown, Chocolate, Black. Hops: Magnum, Chinook. 23 IBUs. Amazingly rich and dense with chocolatey richness and some bitter notes. Intense with sweet dark maltiness, combining richness and intensity with lovely detail. 8/10

Citrageddon, Bullfinch Brewery

citrageddon
Bullfinch, is based in London micro beer central and certainly pulls no punches. They produce crafty beers with a global kick and a hoppy punch to your ale hole. So they claim.

Citrageddon, Bullfinch Brewery, Bermondsey, London
7.0% alcohol
I imagine this is what it is like to have a cannonball shot into your mouth. It’s dark, weighty, intense, quite hoppy sweet and very complex. The first mouthful elicits a sense of shock and awe followed by the desire for second mouthful to see if the first was a fluke. Is it a session beer, absolutely not. Is it impressive, yes. Do I want to drink it again? I don’t know. I need to drink it again to find out if I want to drink it again. 1 or 9/10