Place In A Pint: How Craft Breweries Are Bringing the Concept of Terroir Back to Beer


Locavorism has become one of the dominant food trends of the past ten years, as millennial diners have become increasingly conscientious about the origin of the foods they eat. What started as a desire for general information on farms, producers and products has morphed into an intense general interest in local cuisine. While this might seem like a strictly millennial trend, it has its roots in the centuries old concept of terroir, or the idea that food and drink can paint a picture of the place from whence it came.

Though the idea of terroir is most closely associated with wine (though many in the wine world cast doubt on the concept's validity), it is also common for producers working in fields such coffee, chocolate, cheese, tea and agave to invoke the term to describe the effect that a certain place can have on the agricultural products it produces. Knowing that a renewed interest in place and product authenticity can be a big selling point to millennial diners has brought the idea of terroir to the forefront of food and beverage movements where it might least have been expected, including terroir-driven wine's cool younger sibling: craft beer.

For hundreds of years, beer was very much an agricultural product, made seasonally with locally sourced grains, native yeasts, and regional hops, fruits, and spices. Advances in technology and shipping created an environment in which complex, delicious beers could be made by people nowhere near the source of their ingredients, and for that, the craft beer world should be quite grateful. Access to a diverse range of ingredients has allowed brewers to create the voluminous, genre-bending array of beers that are available to drinkers today. Still, there’s something unique and special about a drink that expresses the place that it came from, and modern day craft brewers have taken this idea to heart. In the hands of a skilled brewer working in an area blessed with the right agricultural resources, beer can paint a picture of a place just as well as wine. Below, we'll explore some of the ways this is possible.

Native Yeasts

The most common way in which a beer can express its environment is through the use of native yeast strains, or yeasts that are native to the area in which the beer is being brewed. For hundreds of years all beer was made this way, as brewers were unaware of what yeast was or the roll it played in brewing. Certain yeasts and microflora native to a particular region can contribute incredibly complex flavor profiles to beers, from the clove and banana flavors typical of German Hefeweizen to the funky acidic flavors found in the traditional lambics of the Senne River Valley in Belgium. As previously stated, advances in technology allowed brewers to use a wide range of yeasts that were not specifically local to the brewery, and for a long time this was the norm in brewing, especially in regions not known for their specific yeasts strands.

Contemporary brewers have returned to this tradition, however, with several using native yeast strains to give their beers a bit of local flair. Austin brewery Jester King used a pan of wort (unfermented beer) left out on the brewery's roof overnight to collect their first wild batch of Texas yeasts and microflaura, which they cultured and developed into their own house yeast blend.  Reversing the traditional process, Linsey Hamacher and Trevor Rogers, the co-owners of de Garde brewing in Tillamook, Oregon, analyzed yeast samples from along the Oregon coast before settling in Tillamook, an area that possessed a particularly interesting wild microbial climate. Countless other breweries are following suit, and wild yeast fermentation seems poised to become a new trend the ever-expanding world of American craft beer.

What's In the Water?

Historically, water has played as large a role in localizing a beer's flavor profile as anything. Before widespread and reliable water treatment was possible, breweries started springing up around great water sources, the same way wineries sprung up around lands that yielded expressive grapes. The Bohemian town of Pilsen, blessed with incredibly soft natural well water, was an ideal location for 19th century brewers to develop the original Pilsner, a light and refreshing beer that relied on Pilsen's natural water for its unique character. The English town of Burton-On-Trent is famous for the “Burton snatch”, a term referencing the dry, sulphur-tinged mineral flavor of ales made with Burton water. Though most modern breweries use water manipulation to some degree, remaining close to a clean, pure source of water is still essential for producing quality beers.

Farmhouse Tradition

The story of 21st century craft brewing is one of experimentation, with brewers seemingly willing to throw any number of ingredients into their beers, as long as they taste good. Frequently, these ingredients come from the breweries local community. Both of these trends have their roots in the Belgian Farmhouse Ale tradition, in which farmers produced beers flavored with whatever agricultural products were on hand. This process produces beers that are both unique and totally expressive of their home.

The aforementioned Jester King, a champion of the modern beer-terroir movement, uses locally grown and malted grain in their farmhouse ales, along with ingredients both traditional (berries) and not (oyster mushrooms). Bay-area brewery Almanac prints their slogan “Farm to Barrel” on each of their bottles, signifying their use of locally grown fruits, hops, and grains. Their Farmer's Reserve series focuses on organic fruits from specific Bay-Area farms. Vermont's Hill Farmstead brewery brews Anna, their traditional Biere de Miel, with 20% raw wildflower Vermont honey.

It's clear that modern breweries, in an attempt to produce beers that are unique and flavorful, have adopted an ethos of localism that easily appeals to many in the current dining community. This search for terroir has led many down a designed path that echoes what was once necessity in the brewing world. Beers with a sense of place represent both a reverence for tradition and an exciting new brewery trend, proving yet again that beer is the most innovative, exciting beverage being produced today.