Can beer have terroir? Meaning, can beer have a sense of place to it, just like wine does, where the season and the soil that beer’s ingredients were grown in create unrepeatable characteristics?
This was one of the most interesting questions we debated last Thursday night at Weird Fermentation, the first event in The Stranger’s new Zymurgy Beer Series. Machine House Brewery served as host, and Floodland Brewing and Garden Path Fermentation joined us for the evening. While a packed audience drank beer from each brewery, I moderated a panel discussion where we touched on various aspects of these three idiosyncratic breweries and the beers they make, but this question was one of the most interesting—wine has terroir, does beer?
The question divided the brewers that we had brought together for the event. Garden Path Fermentation’s Ron Extract said he feels terroir in the beer he makes with his brewery’s co-founder, Amber Watts, in the heart of the Skagit Valley. Floodland’s Adam Paysse, who makes beer in Fremont with ingredients he carefully and painstakingly sources from farms around the state, said unequivocally that the idea of agricultural terroir in beer is bullshit.
The question of terroir centers around how beer is made. Beer is, at a minimum, four ingredients—water, yeast, malted grains, and hops—that are manipulated, cooked, and fermented by the brewer. Wine, on the other hand, can be made by simply crushing grapes and then letting them naturally ferment. Does the heavy human intervention that beer requires get rid of any natural terroir that the ingredients might create?
Both brewers brought a fascinating perspective to their arguments. Paysse argued that beer has the terroir of human ideas rather than agricultural terroir, a theory that I'd never heard before.
Extract, who moved to Skagit Valley with Watts specifically because of the local terroir, had a convincing argument to make as well. He explained that even if you can't pinpoint a precise flavor note that encapsulates "Skagit Valley terroir," their beers are still unique to their region and could not be reproduced elsewhere. Both gave great answers, so I’ve included their full explanations at the bottom of this post.
While the two brewers disagreed in some ways, I think they were somehow both right. These kinds of questions that lead to messy and interesting answers are exactly what we wanted to dive into with Zymurgy. I’m sure our next two events, Haze Craze on March 12 and Barrel Wizards on April 30, will generate their own intriguing questions.
I have to give a huge thanks to Bill Arnott of Machine House Brewery for hosting the event and giving us some perspective on the traditional English cask ales he makes. Thanks is due as well to Stumbling Monk and the Masonry, which provided us with glassware for the party.
Here's what Floodland's Paysse said about terroir in beer:
I think that terroir in beer is total bullshit. The thing with beer is that there’s a lot of brewers that are really into wine now because wine is awesome—I drink the shit out of wine—but beer and wine are really different things. Wine is a pure agricultural product like cider. Grapes and apples are actually kind of special because you can take them and they are covered in yeast. You literally just have to crush them to ferment and they will turn into wine completely on their own. Beer is this hodgepodge kitchen sink of things that people have manipulated to the point where they don’t bear a lot of resemblance to their agricultural origins…
There’s a technical side of this conversation and a romantic side of this conversation. The romantic side of talking about terroir in beer is really nice but has no bearing on reality whatsoever. It’s a good story and people want to present their beers in interesting ways which is cool but I think what’s missed is that beer is really special in the sense that it’s an expression of a person’s intent. If you take these highly manipulated things and you can make something totally bizarre and really enjoyable that can bring a bunch of people together—that’s an expression of an idea that someone had in their head. And that’s really cool. The history of English beer and cask beer is the history of pubs. It’s a history of the third place. It’s a history of people getting together in rooms and talking and coming together over it. It’s not an agricultural history… It’s not like you can go out and pick beer off a vine. There is no terroir.
Beer is not site specific. It’s about people. I think when we talk about beer that’s terroir driven we miss the point of what’s actually cool about beer which is it’s about people.
And here's what Extract had to say:
I disagree with some parts of what Adam said. Certainly beer is more manipulated than other types of things but our philosophy at Garden Path Fermentation is working hyper locally. We use exclusively Skagit grown grains… Does this inherently make better beer? No I’m not arguing that it does. And is it something that someone is going to open and say “hm, that tastes like Skagit.” No, probably not that either. But us sourcing locally from our local area, if you want to call it terroir or if you want to call it something else, it does contribute something to the beer. It gives it this distinctive sense of place that is not going to exist elsewhere. And just knowing that all of the ingredients come from Skagit, it is hyper local that way. To me that means something. Whether it means something in terms of the end product or it means something in creating an artificial constraint on what we do, it still means something. The way I would define terroir, it definitely has a flavor that is unique to our area. And we choose techniques that are in our area.
Part of the reason we picked Skagit was specifically because we wanted to source all of our ingredients hyper locally. And there’s very few places in the world that we could do that. We can get everything in a very short radius of where we are producing. And in addition to that we have a natural cellar temperature all year around. And the reason that we can make beer that is much softer, using native yeast… Yeast that we have cultivated from the air and from the things that grow around us without ever having gone through the process of isolating in a lab, and using that to make beer that is my opinion soft and balanced and delicate, I think we owe a lot of that to the natural temperatures we have.
We were able to naturally select for saccharomyces in cultivating our yeast culture and make beer that is in our opinion really representative of where we are. I don’t think we can make that same beer anywhere else in the world using the same ingredients. So I do think our beer is unique to Skagit.