Friday, September 30, 2011

Lots More on Beer and Terroir.

Just to catch you up: Remember that Washington Post article on "Belgium's upstart innovators"? I know, this is the third time I've brought it up. But it's where the conversation started, thanks to the quote from Wendy Littlefield of Vanberg & Dewulf.

She said that brewers like Alvinne and Struise are "really, arguably, are hurting the very culture that they claim to be arising out of."

Hang on, I thought. Now that is interesting. Not sure if I agree -- and it's worth noting that Littlefield says the quote was out of context -- but it's interesting nonetheless. So Littlefield and I struck up an email exchange on things like tradition and sense of place in light of brewers like Alvinne, Struise, Mikkeller, and others. I referred to them as part of a postmodern, transnational craft beer scene. (Insert "absolute elite" jab here.)

Meanwhile the Pour Curator published an interview with V&D's Don Feinberg. Part of what he said: "There are a couple brewers in Belgium who are making beer for Americans. We’re interested in Belgium, we’re interested in their traditions ... There are certain flavors that are true to a type of culture, and if you don’t believe that, you’re one step away from making soda."

Are you with me so far? Good. Because I have some more thoughtful stuff from Feinberg and Littlefield. It takes the form of an essay defending the idea of terroir in beer. Here is Wendy to introduce it:

I promised to send Joe more thoughts on the topic of what we think a good and true Belgian beer is – or is not. Don and I talked a bit – then Don left the room and wrote the essay that follows ….at the end of July – What with our with our crazy schedules and a little wrangling about whether it should appear under both our names or just his - I am only now getting around to sending it to Joe and posting it on our blog. So what constitutes terroir in the beer world? 
We commend you to the writings of Stan Hieronymous ... He has given the topic a good deal of thought. 
Full disclosure: We founded Brewery Ommegang –producing Belgian style beers made in America on a former hops farm. We certainly thought they had terroir – but then again….an argument can be made to the contrary. What do you think?
It is clear enough in the essay that terroir for Feinberg is much broader than dirt and rocks and weather. There is a sense of identity and taste from a particular place.
A great Saison made in Denmark is beer without a home, an orphan, a delicious flavor without roots, trapped in a glass. So is an IPA made in Belgium, or an Belgian Triple made in California.
So how does a brewery find its terroir?
There may be other ways to create a discernable [sic] character that sets a beer apart and above others but to me the surest way is the house character that comes only from the combination of water, climate, brewery configuration and 1 yeast strain. This character, without exception, limits the styles the brewery can produce. But, when used successfully, it also means brewery X can produce one style of beer better than other breweries. It is why so many European breweries typically specialize and brew only one style, lambic, weizen, abbey etc.
For lots more discussion fodder, here is the complete essay.

The floor is yours. And if any of you blogger types decide to riff on this elsewhere, please post a link in the comments if you don't mind.


  1. Blimey Joe, that’s why I like you Yanks, you philosophise about beer — must be something to do with the French helping you out in the 1780s — or riffing on the Pershing theme: Lafayette nous voici.

  2. Hmm, If Ommegang can have "terroir" brewing Belgian-style Beer in the US, why can't Alvinne or Struise be brewing an US-style IPA or oak aged Imperial Stout and have "Terroir". Isn't it that simple? For years and years beer lovers in Belgium have been whining about all those sweet beers and beer "monuments" that have gotten sweeter. Now that there is a new vibe the other way I can only applaud this.

    1. It's totally not that simple. With Ommegang it ran a lot deeper than beer style. They did not just occupy a building and start making beer, they designed and constructed a building to capture the look and feel of an authentic brewery in Belgium. They partnered with other Belgian brewing companies. The land was chosen based off of cultural and historic background. The beers themselves were named to honor Belgian culture. Ommegang was made to be more than a production facility, it was designed celebrate the Belgian beer culture on every possible level.

  3. And if Rocky has "terroir" because you 'know' his background and you can see the person in him, then I think "terroir" has more to do with the brewer and HIS background behind the beer.

  4. Yeah March, as Wendy basically admits in the intro, they are basically open to the same criticism with Ommegang.

    I'm one of those who has complained about the sweet-spicy direction of some Belgian brewers. Some of the beers from the "upstarts" hav been in the same direction, others not so much. One thing's for certain: They are never boring.

    I actually think that by Feinberg's own parameters Struise may have some serious terroir points. They have an expressive house yeast. Besides some popular IPAs and imperial stouts, they also make beers that would seem more indigenous to the area, or at least inspired by it... Pannepot, Aardmonik and Dirty Horse come to mind.

    And they have ostriches.

  5. Took a break from translating to write my response. Comments are more than welcome.

  6. Cheers, Max. Some great points and lots to take in there.

    One thing I would say is that I think a discussion of terroir in beer is predicated on a relatively loose definition of it... maybe what elsewhere has been called "sense of place." So pointing out the differences with its importance in wine, for example, isn't quite enough to disavow me of its use in beer.

    I'd also take issue with your contention that beer has always been an "industrial" product. Maybe you meant something else with that word (something that went over my head). Obviously beer evolved from humbler beginnings. Even today it is not always industrial, although you've never seen the clumsiness of what I try to do under the roof of my car port once every few Saturdays. In any case "industrial" to me implies a sense of scale, and even at the larger end does not preclude terroir or sense of place.

    Of course you're dead on about how many brewers source ingredients these days. I think maybe Feinberg's point is... there is another way.

    Not that every ingredient would have to be grown in the backyard, of course. Good luck growing hops and malting barley in Costa Rica. But the ale I'm about to brew has about 20% fermentables from tapa de dulce, a crystallized form of raw cane sugar juice. I think I'll name it after the old monastery up the hill from our house.

  7. Got a great email from a friend of mine who I knew in Brussels. Afterward he admitted it he should have posted in the comments, so I'm taking the liberty:

    You know, during my three semesters (yes, three) of wine classes in college, we talked a lot about terroir. It is absolutely more than dirt and rocks and weather, although those are the influencing factors. Terroir is about the confluence of circumstances that, if a producer is interested in making the absolute highest quality product possible, force decisions which limit your options. So I think Feinberg has it exactly right. The concept is the same.

    "the surest way is the house character that comes only from the combination of water, climate, brewery configuration and 1 yeast strain. This character, without exception, limits the styles the brewery can produce. But, when used successfully, it also means brewery X can produce one style of beer better than other breweries."

    The French have the strongest, most sophisticated, and longest standing wine laws in the world. They go back almost 500 years. And they are based on hundreds of years of trial and error - which varietals grow best in which areas? Quality and tradition coming together.

  8. Joe,

    I didn't want to mean scale by "industrial", but something that is done by "machines" that transform a bunch of ingredients into something that is completely different from their original natures. What I want to mean is that wine is almost 100% natural, at its most basic it's the juice of fermented fruit, beer isn't like that.

    I'm not against people using terroir if the see it fit, I just don't like using it myself.

    As for the sense of place. That's exactly the point I want to make, I believe there is a sense of place, it's a globalised one, which is the way many people and companies feel these days.

    The thing is that the Danish Saison Feinberg speaks about is something still rather new, just like Pilsner Lager was 150 years ago, and look where it is now, or look at Baltic Porter, a style that was born from people copying a foreign style that was popular at some point.

    In other words, maybe in 10-20-30 that Danish Saison will have grown roots and will have acquired a specific "Danish" character that will be different from the Belgian Saison that it wanted to recreate originally.

  9. Thanks for getting more into this, Joe. Fantastic stuff and good philosophizing by everyone.

    I think the thing about terroir as it relates to beer is that it has to be related to strictly geographical elements (primarily water, but maybe local ingredients). Consequently, it's just not the biggest deal for most beers. As Feinberg points out, it might give you an edge in one.

    The idea of a spiritual terroir, though, to me, is more about tradition and respect for a history. We get into tricky ground when words mean more than one thing. The example I've raised is this silly question: Is every McDonald's in Bangkok a Thai restaurant? Well, in a strictly grammatical sense, sure, but of course that's not what we mean. A Belgian Ale needn't be brewed in Belgium any more than every beer in Belgium is a Belgian Ale.

    So de Struise is certainly a part of a tradition - perhaps a young or future one as the filosof suggests - one that I'd call "International." They happen to be in Belgium, but are not within the Belgian tradition at all. More importantly, they don't seem to be using their location - their terroir - for anything especially suited to their beer, and I think that's what grates on traditionalists at times.

  10. But isn't "tradition" a very relative concept to begin with?

    What we might consider "traditional" today could have been easily considered "innovative" or "subversive" once, just like lagers where in Bohemia 150 years ago. So "tradition" and "history" as defining aspects of "terroir" don't go very far.

  11. I am coming around more and more to my friend Ryan's view viz a viz the wine world, with terroir as a set of local limitations that force you to make choices leading to a distinctive product. Might have to kick off a fresh post with it.

  12. I've stayed away from this debate for many reasons, but now I have to add something.

    Feinberg says, "for Belgian brewing culture to be vibrant and authentic we think it still needs the regional independents with bricks and mortar and employees and community ties and history and stylistic distinctiveness."

    I would argue that this doesn't exsist in modern day Belgium. Sure there are some great small breweries holding on to the age old traditions of their area, but 90% of breweries here are now all brewing the same two beers. An overly sweet (and often over spiced) high alcohol blonde and a slightly lower ABV brown version. Their own versions of Leffe blond and bruin... or to be less cynical, badly brewed versions of Westmalle Tripel and Dubbel.

    While Alvinne and Struise brew some IPA's and other non-belgian beers, they brew a lot of beers that have more to do with Belgian brewing tradition than the "traditional" breweries suffering from the LEFFE-effect. Alvinne Wild and Struise Pannepot come to mind. I could rant on as to why Alvinne Wild could be called one of the most traditional beers in Belgium eventhough the brewery dates back less than 10 years (and that recipe is only a couple years old)... but I won't.

    So when we speak of this terroir, WHEN is that? Is it set in the brewing past that no longer has a hold on Belgium itself, or the modern day "cola-generation" brewing practices, or is there a parallel Disney-like tradition that makes us feel good about modern Belgian beer?