Ronald P. Blue II & Frank G. Karioris, “The Travelling Spirit: Towards a Terroir of Beer,” Coldnoon: International Journal of Travel Writing & Travelling Cultures, Vol. 6, No. 1 (September 2017) pp. 37-54.
Abstract: The story of beer stretches all the way back to the ancient Egyptians who brewed one of the first fermented drink that we know classify as beer. While much of what we now think of as beer has its roots in Bohemia—including Germany and the Czech Republic—beer is a drink that spreads beyond all borders. One can see this in the rebirth of US Craft Breweries since the 1980s, or in the homemade beer-like product made by Black South Africans during and after Apartheid. While scholars and connoisseurs of wine have discussed and theorized dramatically regarding the terroir of wine—the sense of place that the wine itself contains, the elements of the land, people, and cultures from whence the wine sprung—this analysis and exploration has not been as thoroughly marked or discussed regarding the production, drinking, and sharing of beer. This is due to the variety of ingredients that go into making beer, as well as into the distinct place that beer has culturally. This article looks at the ways that beer travels, in a very active sense, and the hints, subtleties, and nuances that it carries of its place of origin. To do this we will quickly explore the way that terroir is theorized regarding wine, and then will elaborate on the ways that beer has and continues to travel, before laying out a possibility for a terroir of beer. Throughout the article we hope to begin a conversation surrounding the way that beer travels, and, importantly, the ability that beer has to hold onto its rootedness and provide each drinker an insight into the places from whence it has sprung.
Stay with the beer / beer is continuous blood / a continuous lover (Charles Bukowski)
The story of beer is a long one, stretching all the way back to the ancient Egyptians who brewed one of the first fermented drink that we know classify as beer. While much of what we now think of as beer has its roots in Bohemia—including Germany and the Czech Republic—beer is a drink that spreads beyond all borders. One can see this in the rebirth of US Craft Breweries since the 1980s, or in the homemade beer-like product made by Black South Africans during and after Apartheid. It is a drink that travels, and does so in ways that many other drinks—particularly alcoholic ones—don’t.
While scholars and connoisseurs of wine have discussed and theorized dramatically regarding the terroir of wine—the sense of place that the wine itself contains, the elements of the land, people, and cultures from whence the wine sprung—this analysis and exploration has not been as thoroughly marked or discussed regarding the production, drinking, and sharing of beer. This is due to the variety of ingredients that go into making beer, as well as into the distinct place that beer has culturally.
In this short article, we aim to look at the ways that beer travels, in a very active sense, and the hints, subtleties, and nuances that it carries of its place of origin. To do this we will quickly explore the way that terroir is theorized regarding wine, and then will elaborate on the ways that beer has and continues to travel, before laying out a possibility for a terroir of beer. Throughout the article we hope to begin a conversation surrounding the way that beer travels, and, importantly, the ability that beer has to hold onto its rootedness and provide each drinker an insight into the places from whence it has sprung.
Setting up the Discussion: Terroir of Wine
Literally translated as “earth” or “ground,” Terroir is a term that was created in France in order to describe the myriad of geographical factors that influence a particular wine’s flavor. This term has entered into the broader English vocabulary as a descriptor to classify the ways a certain region or location has influenced on a wine. This new definition is particularly useful for a geographical layperson to compare and contrast similar wines from different regions or countries and to determine how a Cabernet Sauvignon has different flavor palettes when grown, for example, in South Africa or France. To a wine enthusiast, even a small difference in wine may play a big factor in their enjoyment and tasting of the beverage. For example, if a particular grape is just a touch too sweet, then a landscape or region that can impart a bit more tannic bitterness may help balance that specific wine. This more particular usage of the phrase terroir will be classified as bijou terroir for the purposes of this paper, whereas the newer, broader usage of the term will be stated as regional terroir.
The most primary of factors in bijou terroir is the geology and climate of the vineyard where the grapes are grown. This is especially important for discussions related to views of strict terroir, where you look for minute differences that stem from the type of soil, the amount of rainwater, and even the mineral composition of the underlying shale or granite in some regions. Researchers have pinpointed certain factors that can influence tastes, such as richness or spiciness in a wine. This can be seen in one of the primary viticultural regions of Alsace in France, the sub-Vosgian hills. Within the sub-Vosgian hills, you have small bijou terroirs, such as Saverne, which “is extensively covered by loess, a ‘cool soil’ better for hops and fruit than for grapes.” Additionally, the area is more exposed to the weather, which, combined with the soil, means that there are “few quality vineyards.” In contrast, Rouffach in the sub-Vosgian hills is home to one of the best Alsacian Cremants and is just over 100 kilometers from Saverne. The richer white wines in the area are due to the elevated nature of the area as well as the steep hills which require terracing and specific techniques to grow the requisite grapes, involving the Triassic sandstone under the soil. It is astounding that such a huge change in the quality of wine can occur over such a small distance, but the effects of terroir on the final product of wine can range from making a mediocre grape strain into a Grand Cru or turning transplanted, peak forty year old vines into sour grapes.
Even amongst heavyweights, there can be striking differences in bijou terroir. Sonoma County in California is renowned for their Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels and Chardonnay, while Burgundy, France is considered the premier Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producer in the world. The soil type of the latter comprises mostly of chalk and limestone, whereas Sonoma County has a wildly varied soil type across its different bijou terroirs, but most frequently you find volcanic rock, loamy soil and sand. This affects the final result in a drastic way as “Sonoma pinots emphasize fruit, whereas Burgundian pinots carry earthy, hummus-y and sometimes animalistic notes.”
As the common man cannot be expected to know the soil type of a specific sub-region in France or the weather patterns over the San Juan Valley as it sits in the shade of Cerro Las Tórtolas, the phrase terroir has shifted into something more resembling a conglomeration of the best wines from a region, hence the designation and usage here of the term regional terroir. In terms of regional terroir, looking at the best productions from the region and comparing them to other top wines from other regions is the key component in forming an understanding of how a region’s terroir impacts the wine and gives a taste profile that can be applied across the board. Additionally, since there cannot be un-affected wines, per se, many tastings of a single strain of wine across many types of regional terroir must be examined in order to form a singular understanding of the base of what the grape will produce in a wine, regardless of the effects of the regional terroir. Once a person can grasp what is produced by the grape and what is produced by the region, then a proper analysis of the influence of regional terroir can be conducted.
Having seen the way that wine is connected to its locale in a variety of fashions, and the dramatic impact that the location can have on the taste and impact of a particular wine, one might begin to wonder whether other drinks are similarly impacted. Specifically, one might ask this question about beer—which, according to some, is the most drank alcoholic beverage in the world. Before discussing this, we want to explore a bit of the background of beer and the way that it has traveled, and, simultaneously, the way that it has found connections and root in the place where it was made.
What isn’t traveling these days? In the era of globalization and increases in the number of peoples moving across the globe, it should be no surprise that beer is similarly taking part in the trend towards movement. The travel that beer has done has, for a long time, been fairly limited. One of the most long-standing examples of beers traveling is of course the India Pale Ale. There are a variety of stories surrounding the style and why it was invented, one of the most prominent ones is that the British needed to find a way to get beer all the way to India so they added a lot of hops to the beer, hops of course being a preservative. Similarly, it wasn’t until Pabst from Milwaukee invented a way to get lagered beer down the Mississippi by using ice boxes positioned at particular points that beer lagers traveled en mass.
For a long time, beer had been a local item. An object for which each town, city, or community could rely on for its daily consumption. This traditional of locality of breweries and brews has once again taken on a strong resonance. A few years ago, the US just got back to the number of breweries that had existed prior to prohibition. Think about that; the US population in 1920 when prohibition began was 106.5 million people. Today it is just over 323 million. So even with the same number of breweries, there is still a vast difference in how the population relates to beer. This is in large part due to the rise of macro-breweries, a trend that is not limited to the US but extends around the globe—often beginning in the US. What this means, for our discussion of beer traveling, is that even with the increase of craft breweries in the US beer is still traveling far more than it traditionally might have.
This is even more true when one looks not at the finished product, but at the ingredients that go into any given beer. With high speed shipping, breweries have global products at their disposal. So US brewers might use German hops. This is made more complicated when we look at the fact that these ‘German hops’ could possibly have been grown a few states over within the US. Similarly, when looking at strains of yeast, brewers are cultivating particular strains while other brewers seek to gain yeast strains from some of the top beers.
Towards a Terroir of Beer
Given all of this, it now comes to the question of whether one might be able to distinguish or come to find a terroir for beer; an essence of its source, a particular je ne sais quoi—a thing that is not quite definable, but yet is distinctly there. For what is terroir but that thing that borders on the ineffable? In what remains of this article, we hope to begin formulating some possible answers to this question, with a focus on making explicit the connections between beer and locale, and, synchronously, the way that beer is able to travel and move while holding onto terroir; doing so in ways that wine is unable to match.
As we have seen from above, many of the ingredients of beer travel—often long distances—before finding their way into a bottle or can, and then even more frequently travel once they have been packaged. Yet what remains? What stays with the beer from its varied elements? What continues and is contained that connects the beer to a place? Not simply that, what place does it connect the beer to? Where the ingredients come from; where the beer was made; where it was bought?
While there are many similarities between beer and wine, the differences between the two beverages is what will differentiate their respective styles of terroir. The first difference we must look at is whether the fact that wine, as a single-ingredient produce, has a substantially different terroir than beer due to beer incorporating, at minimum, three ingredients: water, grains, hops. This recipe is the basis for the Reinheitsgebot, the German purity law for beer production—which only later included yeast as an ingredient. As terroir in wine looks to the geographical and historical contexts of where the grapes are grown, a natural outlook for beer may seek to look towards the geographical and historical contexts for those three ingredients.
Jeff Rice, in his recent book Craft Obsession, works to look at some of what might make a beer terroir. He goes into detail about the beer Pliny the Elder, from Russian River Brewing out of California. The beer takes its name from the Roman naturalist who is claimed to have discovered hops. Rice, along with Martyn Cornell, discuss the Pliny of history in connection with Pliny the beer, and, in so doing, seek to establish a sense of terroir to the beer from the naturalist. This discussion opens up our understanding of terroir as not strictly limited by terrestrial concerns, but positions the concept strongly within the boundary of history. Rather than thinking about terroir as a relation to a location, this sets it up as a more fluid and archival connection.
At the same time, brewers have long recognized the distinct ways that a physical location can impart flavors and essence to a beer. For example, in 1991 the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont—more commonly and colloquially known as the Chimay brewery—shipped water to a brewing facility that was brewing some of their beer during renovations. From an academic standpoint, scholars have begun looking explicitly at the impact of geography on beer. This exploration has explored, amongst other topics, the appellations of beers, looking at styles and place.
This is a direct, one-to-one comparison of the terroir of beer with the terroir of wine, but we believe that is loses sight of what the concept of terroir is aiming to do in the larger picture of wine culture. When a wine expert speaks of terroir, they look to encompass more than the loamy soil or the rainy season and its impact on the wine; they seek to impart a personality or a distinct illustration of the wine that moves outside of the bounds of taste. This is what the concept of ‘the terroir of beer’ should seek to emulate, and other notable brewers have begun to understand this idea.
Even the sub-concepts of the terroir of beer can be connected to their matching concepts in the terroir of wine. First, it is essential to understand the point of bijou terroir which is to analyze a specific taste or a specific style of a winery. In wine, this is greatly influenced by the geographical specifics of the vineyard as wine is a one-ingredient product. A strict analysis of the geographics will provide the interested party with how a particular strain of grape may be influenced by the land, but that is only marginally helpful to understanding the concept of bijou terroir. Yes, these are the factors that create the ‘taste’ of the winery, but what is important is not the factors but the ‘taste’ itself as this is what will be the calling card for the winery in its perception by the public. Now, it is of course not quite what vineyards might agree would be a bijou terroir, but that is because their definition excludes, in a sense, the possibility that beer could ever have terroir at all. Therefore, we must not hold stable to the entirety of the way that they would define it and break the mold to some degree by looking up from the ground and seeing what point the concept of terroir is trying to make with its existence.
The broader sense of bijou terroir in wine is what translates well to breweries. The concept of bijou terroir in beer as breweries have sought the same sense of branding through a unified taste. A specific ‘taste’ or brand in beer can range from style of beer, such as producing only wheat-based beers a la Schneider Weisse, to establishing a consistent flavor across beers, such as extremely hop-forward beers like Three Floyd’s, to creating unique sets of beers that try to adopt a consistent theme, such as the herbal beers from Propolis Brewing. As stated, Three Floyd’s Brewing in Munster, Indiana is a brewery that utilizes a specific taste that underpins most, if not all, of their beers. Once you understand that ‘taste’ or influence that they seek to have in every beer, then you drink a Three Floyd’s beer in order to see their adaptation of that style to their ‘taste’. With Three Floyd’s specifically, their signature ‘taste’ is are various blends of Amarillo plus the 5 C’s of hops and when you drink their Alpha Klaus (a Christmas-style porter), you seek to find their signature on that beer which falls outside of the normal indicators of that style. Other similar breweries are Lakefront Brewing in Milwaukee, WI which uses a malt-forward recipe across its different styles, and Sierra Nevada in Chico, California who uses a specific set of hops to give the trademark resin quality to their various beers.
This style of bijou terroir isn’t limited to a single, consistent ‘taste’ either, as there are breweries who attempt to utilize other avenues of establishing their specialty, such as Propolis Brewing in Port Townsend, Washington who have become known for their fresh, herbal beers. All of their beers use herbs that the brewery grows on their own farm, providing a strong connection between brewing and ingredient location. This is an expansion of the Three Floyd’s style of bijou terroir as they are looking for a range of ‘tastes’ that fall firmly into a single category: herbal. Much like how the Burgundy Pinot Noirs are known for their leathery, tannic qualities due to the geographic conditions of the area, Propolis seeks to define their beers as seasonal and earthy through the use of herbs and spices that they grow themselves.
Brewing a Beer Terroir
What all of this tells us is that far from being settled, beer terroir is an open question; but, importantly, what is certain is that one is no longer able to elevate terroir only to wines. The Founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, in a 2006 speech to other breweries, said: “The wine world has wrapped this one word with mighty voodoo powers and created a cult of exclusivity around it. Breweries have terroir as well. But instead of revolving around a patch of land, ours are centered on a group of people.” Moving towards a more flexible conception of terroir in his statement, Sam Calagione prioritizes the people. While we do not agree completely that the people themselves constitute terroir, it is important to recognize the role of community in structuring the taste and palette of beer.
The terroir of beer is, by its very essence, a mobile, fluid, and traveling connection. While wine may seek to particularize the way that each hillside brings its own element to the style through bijou terroir, which is ultimately a form of Scientism, beer’s bijou terroir is more transient than that. As we have seen, it isn’t a direct analysis of the science behind the production of the beer but more of the personal mission of the brewery, similar to Calagione’s idea on beer terroir. That being said, regional terroir amongst both wine and beer is much closer in purpose and analysis, which makes a direct comparison of the two easier.
When a region of beer is analyzed in a similar fashion to a region of wine, you begin to see marked connections. For example, if you contrast German wheats or hefeweizens against their counterparts in the United States, then it becomes quickly apparent that there is an underlying difference between the two regions; and this is the terroir. Even breweries in the United States that claim to make traditional German-style beer, such as New Glarus Brewing in New Glarus, WI, there is a distinct flavor difference that is discernible even if the type of malts, hops and water are the same. In the case of wheat beer, German wheats have a fuller, sweeter taste which contrasts with German-American wheats that taste a bit more astringent and grainy, though not necessarily in a negative way. Contrasting New Glarus and Schneider-Weisse from Munich, Germany, both produce world-class wheat beers, but you can taste the fundamental difference between the two that echoes through other beers in their respective regions.
Similarly, India Pale Ales, or IPAs, have developed their own regional terroirs through the evolution of the recipes. English IPAs are markedly different to ‘West Coast’ IPAs which contrasts against the newer ‘East Coast’ IPAs. In this view of regional terroir, the recipe is what has led to a unified idea of what an IPA should be in a particular area, giving rise to the regional IPAs. West Coast IPAs strive for bitter, tropical hops, while East Coast IPAs look to have a more balanced product with a distinct malt character contrasting against the bitter hoppiness and English IPAs are classically known as malty, marginally hopped beers, which is anathema to what a West Coast IPA strives to achieve.
At first, this seems like a complete deviation from the idea of regional terroir in wine, but wine just as frequently uses recipes, or blends, in order to produce a product of a specific taste. Almost all red wines produced in Bordeaux or Burgundy are blends between the three major strains of grapes used in the region: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Similarly, Napa Valley in California has followed suit and creates similar blends, but, due to the differences in bijou terroir in the vineyards, the blends of their respective regions become known for certain qualities. Napa Valley’s reds are known for being complex and bold with a strong “dominance of fruit,” while Bordeaux’s wines “are often concentrated, powerful, firm and tannic.” This sense of a singular idea for Cabernet across the region of Bordeaux or Napa Valley is directly comparable to beer. Of course, there are several IPAs from the West Coast of the United States that are not focused on intense bitterness and hop aroma, but there are also fruity Cabernets from Bordeaux or tannic Cabernets from the Napa Valley. The general theme of the region is the goal of regional terroir and these exceptions help to prove the rule at this point due to their relative rarity. This type of comparison might be possible for other types of alcohol, specifically whiskey, but this is outside of the scope of this article.
If there is any doubt left about the concept of terroir for beer, then Cantillon, a brewery in Belgium, is the posterchild for the direct importation of the concept from wine. Cantillon exclusively produces lambics, a style of sour beers, that is known for its wine-like qualities, such as aging over wood, natural fermentation (not forced with the addition of yeast) and utilization of fruit (though not always). Cantillon is the Bordeaux of lambics and has reached a certain level of notoriety through its consistently ultra-world-class offerings and their strict methods used in the production of their beers. Their beers have a terroir that is unique to themselves (bijou terroir), but it has also inspired and fostered to spread of lambics across the region (regional terroir). Cantillon bridges the gap between wine and beer with their lambics, with their beers Vigneronne and Saint Lamvinus having, respectively, white and red wine grapes as part of the brewing process. In these two beers, one can see the way that a beer terroir is able to be brought into conversation with that of wine in a very direct sense.
The US beer Coors has extolled on its cans, bottles, and commercials that the beer is the “taste of the Rockies”. Within this seemingly simple phrase is a statement about the terroir of beer, its place, and its connection to a location. At the same time, with the merging of Miller and Coors in 2008, Coors as a beer is now brewed at six locations throughout the US. As pointed to above, the rise and near monopoly of macro breweries globally in the past forty years has had a dramatic impact on how we each drink beer, what beer we are drinking, and how connected that beer is with the concept of terroir.
Terroir for beer is “weaker” in a specific sense, in that it is less able to be directly called to. By which I mean, due to its breadth and the number of ingredients it is less possible for a drinker to put their finger on how the place impacts on the beer. That said, I think that beer terroir also calls into question what it is that we do when we drink. Here I want to indicate: wine drinkers seem to want to, by defining the particularities of terroir very strictly (to the North side of a specific hill, for example) to the taste, and, as such, are omitting so much of the drink. Drinking beer—or wine I might argue—is never entirely about the sip. It is about what came before it. What came after it. What will come at the end of the night. What you’re eating with. And, as we have seen very dramatically, who one is drinking it with! But, then one has to ask: How is that terroir? Is it at all?
Further research or thinking on this topic could look at the way that water specifically interacts with the terroir of beer. It could also include work looking specifically at the ways that certain styles have developed in relation to the products at hand and how this has impacted terroir in the region. One thinks, here, of the Japanese incorporation of rice into their beers. Similarly, there is much more research that needs to be done about the impact that these particular ingredients have on the beer and in the creation of the terroir. One of the most fruitful directions forward in this vein would be an exploration of the role of water—as discussed above—on beer and the way that water is unreproducible in a number of ways and contains much of the essence of beer.
As the most widely consumed, and, arguably, the oldest, alcoholic beverage, beer provides insights into the culture from which it emerges. It represents some of the foundational DNA of human and nature interactions, brewed together in unique and particular fashion in each location. As others have discussed, beer sheds light on the people who made it and the place where it was made. This article has sought to elucidate and explore some of these connections, recognizing the limited scope of this discussion. Fundamentally, thinking towards a beer terroir opens us to further understandings of other places and peoples, bringing us together. A discussion over beer creates connections, and is a way for us to learn about each other.
 Bukowski, Charles (2002) Love is a Dog from Hell. New York City: HarperCollins.
 Wilson, James E (1998) Terroir: The Role of Geology, Climate and Culture in the Making of French Wines. San Francisco: Octopus Publishing Group. P. 85
 Courtesy of Google Maps.
 Wilson, p. 86
 St John (2015).
 Nelson, Max (2008) The Barbarian’s Beverage: A History of Beer in Ancient Europe. London: Routledge.
 Rice, Jeff (2016) Craft Obsession: The Social Rhetorics of Beer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Pgs 79-82.
 Patterson, Mark and Hoalst-Pullen, Nancy (Eds)(2014) The Geography of Beer. New York City: Springer.
 Mittag, Roger (2014) ‘Geographic Appellations of Beer’. In Patterson, Mark and Hoalst-Pullen, Nancy (Eds) The Geography of Beer. New York City: Springer.
 The 5 C’s of hops commonly refers to these strains: Chinook, Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, and Citra. These are commonly used in West Coast-style IPAs and are known for a grapefruit aroma and their medium to high intensity bitterness. http://www.homebrewstuff.com/hop-profiles
 Hieronymus (2011).
This work was first published as part of the Maple ~ September 2017 Issue, of the Coldnoon journal.