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.