Was interested to catch a glimpse of some of the tweets between Tim Atkin and various beer bloggers yesterday; one thing stuck in my mind: something said about wine having a sense of place but beer not so much. Terroir in other words. It led me back to my 2005 book The Big Book of Beer, in which I wrote a page about the terroir of beer, where I argued you could have a sense of terroir for beer. I thought I would reproduce it here with one caveat: it was written in 2005 and was very much of its time, if I were writing now I would come at it from a different angle, but I do like the idea of the effect of salt-laden north-easterly winds of East Kent Goldings.
‘Terroir is the term used to describe the effect of the local environment, history, farming practices and climate on the product. In the world of wine, the very concept of terroir adds value, prestige and romance to certain vintages. Winemakers can tell stories about steep south-facing slopes, granite soils, low rainfall and all-year sunlight that have oenophiles turning claret with excitement. Can beer be said to have a similar terroir? Most certainly. The ingredients of beer have a terroir, that magical attachment to place. Here’s Kentish hop grower Tony Redsell on the effects of the local temperature on his hops: ‘The exposure to the salt-laden north-easterly winds in March, as the character of the hop is being developed, gives an East Kent hop that unique aroma, which is just that little bit different from common or garden (yard) Goldings or Goldings types.’ Taste and savour Shepherd Neame’s Master Brew or Spitfire to experience this uniqueness. For richer hop aromas we have to travel further west to Herefordshire and Worcestershire, where breweries such as Teme Valley, Hobsons and Wye Valley make use of the hops grown on their doorsteps. The rich clay soils in the area help to produce these lush hoppy scents. Here the Fuggle hop is king (though other hops are also grown). This is a magnificent bittering hop, which adds a sensuous earthiness to beer, but also contributes a tropical, grassy aroma. In East Anglia, both large and small brewers use locally grown barley that is also malted in the region. Beers such as Adnams Best Bitter and St Peter’s Suffolk Gold possess a richness and maturity in their malt flavours, which could be ascribed to the rich low nitrogen soils of the region. Then there is the water of Burton, gypsum-rich and hard as iron, which was ideal for sparkling pale ales in the 19th century, making this Staffordshire town the centre of brewing. Until Burton’s water could be replicated chemically, beers brewed in the town had an identity that could be ascribed to terroir. Brewers might not be able to ascribe the qualities of their beers to the angle of the sun on the mash tun or whether it was raining when the fermentation took place, but the raw materials of our favourite beers all have a story waiting to be told, whether it’s hardy hop bines struggling in the cold winds of East Kent during March and April, when the flavour and aroma of the hop begins to form, or sturdy stalks of grain taking their time to mature as another summer sea fog rolls in along the north Norfolk coast.’