The Trouble with Terroir

I’ve written before on my thoughts about beer being the “new wine“, so I won’t rehash all of that here. That said, there seems to be a number of people content to discuss the “terroir” of beer, a term I believe should not be associated with beer production. Here’s why.

What is Terroir?

Terroir is commonly understood as “specific place character”, which in wine associates the flavor and overall character of the liquid directly with the soil the grapes were grown in. For wines this makes since because of the process used in production: grapes are picked, crushed and fermented in a matter of hours. In addition, grapes used in production of a winery’s product are typically grown together. This is a highly simplistic view on wine, but in terms of understanding how the “specific place character” is understood, it is helpful.

Similarly, coffee beans are often associated with their ‘terroir’. While many people think of coffee as “Colombian” or “African”, purists will focus on the grower of the beans – where they’re located and what the elevation & climate considerations are for the bean. The only other item I can think of where terroir is actually significant is some of the finer olive oils. Where I live in Sacramento, there are several small-batch olive oil makers that use olives harvested in a small area. Both coffee & olive oil go through minimal processing, so where the beans & olives are grown plays a very important role.  (Coffee beans are dried, roasted, then brewed; olives are simply pressed and sometimes filtered).

In wine, coffee and olive oil the minimal amount of processing involved means that the fruits themselves will reflect the quality of the earth they were grown in.

Why Beer Doesn’t Have a “Terroir” Character

I suppose at some point small brewers around the world could have laid some claim to a “specific place character”. It used to be that brewers bought barley and malted it themselves, using water and other ingredients that were local to them. That said, this is clearly not the case today.

Consider the number of maltsters we have today, it’s very few (I believe there are two in the USA). This means that even if a brewery owns a barley field (as Sierra Nevada does), they must ship their malt across the country to have it malted (which Sierra Nevada does). Mostly, however, brewers buy bulk base malts made up of barley that could have been grown in a number of places.

Of course most beer enthusiasts know that hops in America come from one region – the Northwest (Oregon, Washington and Idaho). Yes, there are are a number of breweries that have planted their own hop fields, but they’re so small that they are typically reserved for producing a “wet-hopped” beer in the Fall. As we know, the vast majority of hops grown are quickly dried and processed (pelletized or bundled).

Yeast is supplied to American craft brewers by a couple of houses – Wyeast & White Labs. Origins of the yeast strains vary and even a brewery’s ‘house yeast’ is mostly derived from a commercially produced strain.

Water is about the only thing that any brewery uses that is local, but even that is often processed before use – either by the city, or the brewer.

These are the ‘raw’ ingredients used to make up beer – each of them has been processed in their own way prior to making their way to the brew house. From here they go through further processing: mash, boil, fermentation, filtration & packaging. By the time the beer reaches your glass, can you honestly expect to experience “specific place character”? Sure, many brewers make several styles of beer with similar characteristics, but that isn’t reflective of the soil where the ingredients were grown.

The Exception

I do leave room for one exception in my “beer doesn’t have terroir” stance, and that is for the lambics of the Senne Valley (the only place true lambics are produced). While the brewers there may still use grains and hops from other places (I honestly don’t know), it is the spontaneous fermentation that really sets these beers apart from any other in the world – and you can’t just replicate these qualities anywhere. A truly spontaneously fermented beer made in California will not taste the same as a lambic.

Appellation: A Clearer Understanding

Appellation in the dictionary is defined as such:

“a geographical name (as of a region, village, or vineyard) under which a winegrower is authorized to identify and market wine; also : the area designated by such a name.”

I believe this is a better way to identify beers associated with a particular region – like Kolsch, California Common (Steam Beer) and Trappist Beers (which is not actually region specific as the Trappist brewers exist in Belgium and The Netherlands).

It’s OK that there is a taste associated with “American beer” (mostly associated with the hops of America), or Belgian beer (often with a spicy, fruity yeast character) and Germany – even though that water qualities of the North and South are considerably different. That said, stop associating these high-level similarities with terroir. I believe it confuses the term and blatantly misleads the average consumer.

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