Can Craft Beer Truly Express a Sense of Place?

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It’s April in the sleepy town of Independence, Oregon, an hour’s drive south of Portland. On a 42-acre plot just east of town, the alluvial, burnt umber soil sops from the afternoon’s passing downpours. This moment between squalls is the only time to run from the rackety farmhouse café out to the hopyards. There, entangled within the detritus of last year’s harvest, is a first look at the tiny, finger-length hop plants emerging from the earth and signaling a new season for Oregon beer.

Farmers have cultivated hops here next to the Willamette River since the 1800s, but the land’s current steward is Rogue Farms. By August harvest time, these bristly bines will climb trellises 20 feet in the air, heavy with the oily cones that add bitterness and aroma to Rogue Farm beer.

Rogue’s brewers believe that where and how these hops, as well as barley, grow affect beer’s flavor—a belief that has become something of a controversial talking point in the craft beer community. In a general sense, this stems from the fact that, while beer is made from agricultural ingredients, modern craft brewing rarely recognizes it as an agricultural product. Barley malt, the primary fermentation source in beer, functions as a commodity ingredient in an economy of scale. Brewers need a lot of malt, so it must be inexpensive. And consumers expect flagship beers to taste the same every time, so barley must be grown and malted consistently.

But as the beer market grows bigger and broader, brewers are looking closer to home for regional ingredients that will differentiate their beer, making the debate over whether beer’s flavors can reflect the environment in which the ingredients were grown—beer’s terroir—increasingly difficult to ignore.

Even within the context of wine, terroir does not have a tidy definition. Wine critic Matt Kramer translated it as “somewhereness,” a word only slightly less vague than its French counterpart. Generally, terroir refers to myriad place-specific factors that affect a food product like wine or beer, such as environmental conditions and even human elements like grower practices.

Standing in a barley field or hopyard, it’s easy to see the connection between land and beer; from the vantage of the bar stool, the connection is blurred. Small craft brewers don’t have the same close relationship to their growers that winemakers enjoy. For winemakers, decisions like when to thin fruit, when to spray (or not to spray at all) and when to harvest can seriously impact the grapes they use. But because of the industrial scale of production, brewers can’t communicate their specific needs to barley growers and maltsters. When a facility like Rahr Malting Co. produces more than half a million tons of malt a year, your neighborhood brewery and its minuscule portion of malt are not considered special.

This distance gets translated to the consumer, who may know every measure of the beer they’re drinking, like the grain bill and the varieties of hops used, but not where those ingredients came from. In addition to the impact of place on flavor, transparency in grower practice—one of the values that farm-to-table chefs and natural winemakers revere—is becoming a more pressing concern for those brewing beer. More and more brewers feel they should be able to answer questions about whether the hops they use were sprayed with fungicide, or if the barley has been responsibly irrigated.

Kristopher Parker is one of those brewers. At his family’s Fess Parker Winery in Santa Ynez, California, he saw firsthand the trial and error that went into determining the best-fit grape varieties for each plot of land. To Parker, the range of terroir flavors in wine is limited to the scope of a single agricultural ingredient: grapes. Beer, with its hops, barley and additions like fruit, offered more possibilities.

In 2014, Parker and Patrick Rue from the Bruery co-founded the upcoming Third Window Brewing Co. in Santa Barbara. Of beer, Parker says, “I think terroir, as in wine, will return to the conversation.” By using locally grown hops and barley that are dried and malted to his specifications, and making additions like foraged fennel and beet sugar that thrive in the area, Parker hopes to create beer that tastes and smells like Santa Barbara.

Regionally restricted ingredient use is not a radical idea. It used to be a necessity. Before transcontinental railroads brought growers and brewers closer together, beer in America was difficult to make and often limited to available fermentation sources like molasses and bran—even corn. As the 20th century rolled on, beer spiraled from a small-batch, handcrafted (and inevitably inconsistent) product into an inexpensive, homogenized commodity made by a handful of national brands.Prohibition shut down the vast number of breweries in America, and when it was repealed, bars and brewers had difficulty regaining licenses. At the same time, technological advances in packaging and refrigeration moved the average beer consumer from drinking draught at a pub to drinking cans from the fridge at home. By the 1970s, a handful of breweries had monopolized American beer.

As microbreweries began popping up in the 1980s and craft brewers experimented with style, a broader spectrum of beer flavors re-emerged. In recent years, beers made using traditional techniques like barrel-aging and bottle-conditioning have increased in popularity. These methods are expanding consumers’ palates to make way for more obscure styles and push the envelope on flavor. “Beer has begun to and will outgrow its commoditized past,” says Parker, “and I think regional styles defined by unique geography will return in a prominent way to the differentiation story.”

Whether the terroir flavors derived from barley and hops can be detected after the agricultural ingredients have been prepared for brewing is still under debate. Many of the best-known brewery operators believe that what happens in the malthouse and brewery overpowers any expression of terroir. But there is one necessary ingredient in beer that unites opposing opinions on whether beer can exhibit terroir: yeast. In almost all American commercial beer production, brewers use a yeast strain that has been isolated, stored and propagated by a laboratory. But there are a number of experimental breweries that are gathering yeast from their region and isolating it for the purpose of creating beer that better reflects its place.

At Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery in Newburg, Oregon, founder Christian DeBenedetti is using hops and barley grown in state, along with heirloom fruit and hazelnuts from his region and wild yeast. “The main yeast we have been experimenting with came from the fruit of some overripe Brooks plums,” DeBenedetti says. “I brewed a batch of saison, filled a large, sterilized Mason jar with the wort, covered it with cheesecloth, and let the wort cool in the nook of the oldest plum tree here on Springbrook Farm, where I grew up and where Wolves & People is under construction.” The cooling wort (unfermented beer) was the perfect medium to capture and grow the wild yeast that exists naturally in the orchard’s air.

With the help of White Labs, a yeast laboratory and bank in San Diego, DeBenedetti isolated a viable strain that he could use as his proprietary farmhouse-style yeast. Exposing beer to wild yeast is a traditional technique that was prevalent amongst Belgian Lambic brewers. They would leave beer to cool outside in the night air, allowing local microflora harbored on the fruit of cherry trees to inoculate the beer. Other American brewers, like Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Michigan, are also working with spontaneous fermentation methods. While Dan Carey, co-founder ofNew Glarus Brewing Co. in Wisconsin, champions a brewing process where plant breeders, growers, maltsters and brewers all work together to create distinctive beers by favoring barley malt and hops that produce the most compelling flavors, not just those with the best disease resistance and flavor homogeny.

Right now, many of these efforts remain on the fringes of the craft beer world, primarily because of the fragility of their sourcing, and the uphill challenge in consistently brewing according to specification. But if the conversation around beer can shift from viewing it less like a food product and more like an agricultural product—that, like wine, is subject to things like changing weather—consumers can begin to explore a wider range of flavors, from regional ingredients, that are not necessarily commercially repeatable. Now is the time to rewrite beer’s homogenous agricultural past and chart a new course forward.