We begin with a question oft-pondered among brewers and thoughtful drinkers: What is terroir as it relates to beer? The word has long been used in winemaking to describe the influence of environmental factors like soil composition and climate on the grapes, and its meaning has since been broadened to encompass a variety of other agricultural goods. But what is it, really?
“Terroir is this elusive thread that follows you in a source-driven product,” says Nile Zacherle, head brewer at Mad Fritz in St. Helena, California. “If you’re buying chocolate from Ecuador or coffee from Madagascar, you’re going to see some flavor profiles that are super specific to those soils and climates.”
Zacherle, whose brewery is located in Napa Valley, has spent time in both the wine world and the beer world. He’s crafted wine in Australia and France, and still produces vino for David Arthur Vineyards in Napa. The man knows terroir. And with wine, he says, the influence of terroir is fairly clear. The temperature, soil and rainfall affect the grapes; the grapes constitute the majority of the flavor of the wine. But with beer, there are more ingredients and more processes that add the human hand, from those involved with harvesting hops and producing malt to the choices a brewer makes when mashing, boiling and fermenting. “All these elements get in the way of the clear expression of a beer’s terroir,” Zacherle says. “Beer used to be a function of place because you didn’t have mass transportation. Beer was a local product because it had to be. Today, you’ve lost any sense of origin.”
And origin—the specific place where each ingredient is grown—matters more than most drinkers think. We accept that Cascade hops, for instance, will have a reliably similar flavor and aroma whether they’re grown in Washington, Oregon or Idaho, but it increasingly seems as if that may not be the case. Sacramento, California’s Ruhstaller Beer has experimented with the concept of farm-to-farm differentiation by brewing several versions of identical IPAs—same malt bill, same water chemistry, same hop schedule—using Cascade hops grown on different farms. The contrast between these beers, as we explored in a post about them a few months back, is stark.
In modern brewing, the influence of place has been all but erased. Whether a hop is Cascade brand matters much more to brewers and drinkers than the farm on which the cones were grown. And that, Zacherle says, is a shame.
“You don’t even know where the farm is anymore,” he says. “You’re down to recipe, process and marketing. What’s the point in making a high-priced product if anyone can make the same product with the same ingredients?”
Zacherle’s answer to this question is a focus on what he calls “origin beer”: beers crafted with an intense focus of locally grown, single-source raw materials. Mad Fritz’s water comes from local springs, reservoirs and aquifers. The hops, too, are all locally grown. Zacherle even built a custom malthouse and began malting local barleys himself in 2016 so he could dictate the way the grain’s kilned and, he says, better preserve the unique character of the barley, from the variety down to the individual farm on which it was grown. Taken together, these factors give his beers an authenticity of origin and recall a traditional brewing era when entire communities were involved in the brewing process.
“This is another frontier of what we call beer,” Zacherle says. “It’s going back in time to how beer used to be made.”
In Austin, Texas, Jeff Stuffings takes a similarly antiquated approach to terroir and origin in the beers he makes at Jester King Brewery.
“I think terroir is companionship with nature, rather than trying to master and control it,” he says. “I don’t want to downplay beers that are carefully engineered to overcome deficiencies or the unpredictability that comes from using a more unbridled approach to beer. I think it’s awesome that you can replicate the terroir of a place anywhere in the world. But the balance of that is having brewers that also allow the ingredients to dictate how the beers turn out.”
This approach—with the ingredients guiding the brewer, rather than the other way around—is perhaps best exemplified in Jester King’s Part & Parcel, a dark, toasty wild ale made with Endeavor malt from Leander, Texas’ Blacklands Malt. The first barley grown and malted in the Lone Star State, Endeavor was a project Blacklands had been working on for years, but having never experienced its flavor, Stuffings had no preconceived notions for how he’d use it.
“We had no plans or intent to go out and make this rich, malty beer, but that’s what the barley pushed us to do,” Stuffings says. “It had this high protein content, which led it to become this dark, highly kilned malt, which led to us making this chocolatey beer.”
This method of brewing—building your beer around what nature gives you—hearkens back to a time when beers developed based on available hops, grain and water. One of the more famous examples of this involves the calcium sulfate-rich wellwater in the now-legendary British brewing town known as Burton on Trent; brewers found the mineral gave their hop-forward beers a delightful snap, and the beers of the region gradually became more hop-focused to suit to suit the water. This is a story common in beer lore—the characteristics that came to define what we think of as beer “styles” were often factors of the available ingredients of a given place. And it’s an approach that brewers like Zacherle and Stuffings hope to protect, in an era of increasing commercialization of beer ingredients, by turning farm to foam.