Should beer have a sense of place?

Pete Brown asks whether a beer should reflect the place where it is from

 

Beer’s easy accessibility and unpretentiousness are some of its most appealing aspects. But this down-to-earth nature sometimes causes suspicion of any attempt to make beer sophisticated or classy.

Take the on-going debate about the ‘Thirteen quid pint’: non-beer drinkers and many beer fans are united by a belief that no beer, no matter how it was made or how strong it is, can ever be worth that much because it’s ‘just beer’.

Another sticky topic is that of terroir, the French term used by the wine industry to argue that a particular combination of climate, aspect and soil type creates conditions in certain places that give their character to the fruit grown and wine made there.

Can beer have terroir? Again, winemakers would argue beer is not sophisticated enough to demonstrate it, while some beer drinkers might dismiss terroir as poncey.

An additional problem is that beer can be made anywhere: a brewer might buy hops from Washington State and malt grown in Norfolk and still call herself a local brewer, whether she’s in Manchester or Melbourne.

But the truth is that beer has always been tied to a sense of place.

It can be helpful to adopt a close English approximation of terroir, and refer to it as ‘land taste’. This concept is just as important to hops and barley as it is to grapes. How could it not be?

Take hops from one area and plant them in another, and their characteristics will change. The citrusy, tropical fruit, dank and piney hops we love from North America are the descendants of earthy, spicy English styles such as Fuggles and Goldings. Bring some Cascade hops back from the States and plant them in Kent, and they’ll take on some of the characteristics of their ancestors.

Norfolk is the best barley growing region in the country because of its light sandy soil, and the cool sea mists that blow in and keep the fields cooler and moister than they should be in high summer, allowing the grain to ripen for longer.

Yeast, invisible in the air around us, goes through thousands of generations for every one of ours, and evolves rapidly to suit its environment. The wild yeasts of the Senne valley create Lambic beers at breweries such as Cantillon, while brewers like Verzet and Rodenbach have their own cultures up the road in West Flanders, creating Flemish red ales.

But perhaps the beer ingredient which has the greatest land taste is the one that’s least thought about.

When water falls as rain, it’s more or less pure. As it seeps through the ground, ions from the minerals in the earth dissolve into it. It becomes hard or remains soft. It may become acidic or alkaline.

When it’s taken from a spring or well, it’s literally full of ‘land taste’, and these attributes have myriad different effects on beer.

The Czech Republic evolved into a lager brewing country because its soft water is perfect for that style, whereas London pale ale brewers of the 19th century had to set up satellite breweries in Burton-upon-Trent because those beers simply weren’t as good brewed anywhere else. Today, any pale ale or IPA brewer will ‘burtonise’ their water to recreate the town’s unique sulphate cocktail.

Beer may be simple. But it’s also four times more complex than wine.

Pete’s Miracle Brew (Unbound Press, £9.99) is now available.