I’ve always admired skilled wine tasters—if “admired” is the proper word for someone who spits perfectly good alcohol into a bucket—for their ability to determine a bottle’s origin through flavor. With one sip, grape variety, probable climate, soil conditions and, thus, origin are revealed to them. This is thanks to terroir, the idea that the environment in which grapes are grown and produced has a distinguishable and reliable impact on a wine’s flavor. It’s been accepted in the wine world for centuries.
When tasting beer, however, we tend to ignore terroir’s influence. Cascade hops are Cascade hops, whether grown in Yakima or Idaho or Tasmania. Right?
Maybe not. During a recent trip to California, I took part in one of the most unique tasting experiences I’d ever come across: an exploration of the impact of hop origin on a beer’s flavor. Hosted by Marvin Maldonado, owner of Federalist Public House in Sacramento, California, the tasting featured four beers from Sacramento’s Ruhstaller Beer, each brewed to to be identical in every way, from grain bill to time in the kettle and fermenters to a Cascade-exclusive hop schedule. The only difference? Where those Cascade hops came from.
“It was fascinating to me the first time I ran through this,” Maldonado says. “I figured, ‘There’s no way I’m going to experience that much difference.’ And then to taste it, and for it to be that different? It’s wild.”
He’s not kidding. Our tasting featured four beers in Ruhstaller’s “Does It Matter?” series, and the contrast between them was unmistakable. The first IPA, made with Cascades grown on Ruhstaller’s own farm in Dixon, California, featured a pleasantly floral, honeylike character. The second, grown in Sloughhouse, California, had an almost tangy citrus quality, like pulpy orange juice. Tropical fruit rind flavors characterized the Kuchinski Hop Ranch IPA, made with hops grown in Lake County, while the IPA designed with Orphan hops—what Maldonado calls the “commodity Cascades” grown in Oregon, Washington and Canada, and purchased in massive quantities by breweries like Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas—was even and herbal, like dried greens. Aroma, flavor, even the character and level of the bitterness were all discrete. It was like drinking four completely different beers.
“I do this three times a month, and it’s the same every time,” Maldonado says. “They’re all so different. And it doesn’t get old. It’s fun taking people down this path and letting them experience it. We showcase it every time we talk to people about beer, because it’s such an interesting conversation that I don’t think anybody else has had.”
Clearly the exploration of the impact of terroir hasn’t been thorough enough, and there’s something missing from the story we’re telling about beer. These farms are not separated by much; save the Orphan stuff, the farms on which these Cascades are grown are all within 100 miles of one another. For there to be so much difference between them tells me that the place a beer’s ingredients are grown matters, and much more than we give it credit for.