Tuesday 5 July 2011

Beer and terroir: a retrospective view

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.’


  1. It's interesting when we try to apply French words with no direct translation to a British ideal - in a way to compare different products.

    I always assumed that beer would have a sense of place until i started to use twitter. I thought the regional hops grown under particular climates, using particular hard or soft water to manufacture, would be clearly definable as beer of a style; of a region.

    But then it became clear that so many brewers were trying hard to replicate beer that wasn't of their region, wasn't made under the same conditions that I am no longer sure if this is the case.

    The other thing about Terroir is that if you watch any of those Oz Clarke shows, he regularly states that terroir can change over the course of 100 yds. That wine producers have vineyards that can have a road going through them, and that due to a slight change in the angle of the slope, the way the wind blows off the road, the height of the water table etc - all change the quality of the grape either side of the road. Remember him stood at a cross road once pointing to four vineyards run by same chateau, all with difference price points for the wine.

    Can the same be said for hop farms? Or is the terroir consistent across each harvest?

    Also - with the popularity of imported hops, do all imported hops come from the same source? Regularly see a call go out on twitter for access to different kinds of hops - if a brewer gets them from two different sources, two different growers - does the sense of place still exist? American hops for direct flavour but from two sources, British hops for balance, British water, roasted barley from Germany (for the trend of black IPAs) - where is the sense of place?

    I know for the Master of wine exam you have to blind taste a beer, picking out the nuances of each grape used - and then place it not just to a country but to a region. I imagine this is would be pretty easy in some cases, but really for a Belgian or American clone beer made in the UK? If so, then has the brewer missed the mark in their representation of that style?

    Will the average Tetleys drinker(possibly a bad example) be able to pick out the subtle differences in the beer now it is no longer made in Leeds?

    Think it is a fascinating subject, and not in anyway claiming one position or another - as I simply do not know. My palate can't tell the difference between a Barolo or a Nebbiolo grown two villages down the road - the only way i can tell is by how much extra it has hit me in the pocket.

  2. I'm a firm believer in the notion that beers reflect their locality not only by the use of ingredients but also by their style.

    Bitters with thick collars like Tim Taylor reflect the county character: honest, uncompromising, straight-bat beers.

    Indisputable Yorkshire terroir.

  3. I think beer most certain has a sense of place, just as much as wine. Think Bohemian Pilsner, try as they might there is no region on the planet that makes a pale lager that can match a Pilsner from the Plzen region of the Czech Republic.

    I have to say though, and this may possibly be invert snobbery (probably an invert snobbery number 2), but I feel uneasy at the use of traditionally wine language when describing beer.

  4. Beer is more democratic because it does not have or require terrior: anyone can make it anywhere. No massive, plantation-style estate required.

    I tried to touch on the subject here how time and history is the terroir of beer: http://flagonofale.blogspot.com/2010/11/on-time.html

    Beer tells a story of culture and time, where wine tells a story of a specific place. When I drink a porter or an IPA, I'm thinking about the period in time that gave birth to it more than the soil conditions and sunlight etc that gave birth to it.

  5. The production of beer is a much more elaborate and elegant process than that of wine. The brewer, not the forces of nature is in control of the flavor. Take for example classic regional beers like Brakspear a South Oxfordshire beer brewed with East Anglian malt, hops from Slovenia and Worcester. The water was from the well under the brewery but the suphuric acid and calcium chloride added to it to make it suitable for brewing could be from anywhere in Europe. Or Orval brewed from British malt, German sugar and Alsatian hops.

  6. Chris, lot of good points there, very thought-provoking, makes me want to go away and come up with an answer that would be about 3000 words long for which I would want to be paid ;-).
    What about Budvar’s terroir — Bohemia hops, Moravian malt, and the water. You taste Budvar against Samson from the same city and there is a difference. But then is that the process, do wine people have same processes all over an area, do they make St Emilion and St-Estephe in the same way? I guess what I am doing is re-imagining the word Terroir for my own post-modernist leanings, trying to forge some link between it and beer, because I like what it represents. Whether I succeed is another matter.
    With hop farms, even over a short area, surely there must be variations, after all, it’s horticulture just like growing grapes is — some people talk of seasonal variations in both barley and hops. Funny thing is though is that with all this equating beer and wine, do you get the loyalty to certains wines as you do to certain beers. All very thought-provoking, I must get thinking.

    Anonymous — as Chris said will it still have that Yorkshire indefinability now it’s brewed by Marston’s

    Velky — see above about Budvar, and is that skill in Plzen the result of generations of brewing, as well as the raw materials? I have no problem in culturally appropriating the language of wine, anything that creates — for me anyway — a new language of beer appreciation (music and art criticism, football chants, yoga techniques and mathematical theory) is good for me.

    Flagon — but if you are drinking a porter or IPA and thinking about when it appeared, it will be nothing like when it appeared presumably. And it all moves on — IPA and porter seem to be moveable feasts these days, which is I think is brilliant. Is your sense of terroir more nostalgia perhaps?

  7. Thanks Stuart, your comments remind me of a post I did a couple of years ago about consistency, the industrial revolution and the Sex Pistols.

  8. Thinking further on the Plzen thing, perhaps terroir is not such an key thing for beer, given that they had Moravian malt, Saaz hops and insanely soft water prior to 1842. It was the application of innovation that lead to Pilsner Urquell, Groll using the new English malting methods to create a pale malt and introducing the Bavarian lagering process. While the raw ingredients are an important part of the process, the maltster and brewer play a far greater role in the process than the concept of terroir allows for.

  9. Velky — well I am out there in September so research will be forthcoming.

  10. Ah research! The best part of writing about beer!!

  11. When it comes to beer, it could be that terroir used to be the fact of the matter. These days it appears to be more of a clever option, either for true belief in the "local" or clever marketing or both.

    But when many brewers these are taking their idea from one origin, yeast from another, malt from another, hops from another, water perhaps doctored to resemble another... and some of these brewers are wandering gypsies themselves, without a home to call their own... I don't know. Hello terroir, meet the global age.

  12. Perhaps it’s appellation? Which is where Stan H started off with.Maybe that is the key. I’m off to my cave to think about this over the summer.

  13. For me, there's a sense of terrior with beer without even mentioning the ingreidents; simply drinking a beer in it's own county - and better still, a beer that you don't drink often - evokes the feel of the area. For example, being Northern, I would find a pint of, say, St Austell in a pub Cornwall massively evocative; much more than if a cask of it ended up in Leeds. Time and place; context.

  14. Fascinating post and comments. I've had written on a whiteboard by my desk to pitch a story about terroir in beer. It was going to be about the beers of Burton, Pilsen and Brussels, about water, hops and yeast and some heirloom malts. But reading Chris' comments has changed my mind a little, opened it a bit more, and made me think a little differently... Perhaps the story starts with terroir and develops into something more, in how you can emulate terroir... (I hope no-one sees this and steals my pitch!!)

  15. I would have commented here earlier, but since DRAFT magazine paid for a story currently in print I figured if anybody was going to put it online it should be them. Now they have:


    I wish I had seen some of the comments here before I wrote the story.