Finding Terroir in Beer
Stan Hieronymus goes around the globe to see if where a beer is born makes a difference in the bottle
In the fall of 1991, the monks at Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont in the south of Belgium contracted with monks at the Dutch abbey Konigshoeven to brew Chimay Blanche because construction at their own brewery limited production. To ensure the beer tasted no different than the Blanche brewed at Chimay, workers filled tanker trucks with water that would be shipped to Konigshoeven.
Chimay already operated a thoroughly modern facility, with brewing engineers capable of manipulating the water, adding minerals, subtracting minerals — in theory, providing a formula to perfectly replicate Chimay’s water in the Netherlands rather than hauling it more than 100 miles north. But it would not have been the same water, nor the same beer.
Trappists understand the importance of place. Sixteen monasteries in Europe belong to the International Trappist Association, and create a range of goods from soups to biscuits to honey to beer that consumers prefer because they are made within abbey walls.
Most brewing companies don’t value the taste of a singular place quite as much, if at all. Anheuser-Busch famously strives to make sure Budweiser tastes the same from any of the dozen plants it operates in the United States. Other breweries treat their water so they can replicate character from famous brewing regions. These are often outstanding beers.
Brewers routinely learn how to take the taste of a particular place out of beer, but not all choose to. The French have long had a word that nicely defines how place can influence what we taste. That word is terroir, and despite many misconceptions, it encompasses more than wine and soil. “Grand Dictionnaire universel du XIXe siècle,” Pierre Larousse’s 19th-century French dictionary, defines terroir as “the earth considered from the point of view of agriculture.” It describes le goût de terroir as “the flavor or odor of certain locales that are given to its products, particularly with wine.”
Jimmy Mauric, brewmaster at the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas, understands the concept. He lives on the homestead where he grew up, about a mile and a half from the brewery in which he now works. When the wind blows from the south and he’s sitting on his front porch, he can smell fresh wort and explain why Shiner beers, probably the Bock, which accounts for more than five bottles sold in every six-pack, wouldn’t taste the same brewed anywhere else.
“You can duplicate the water chemically, but it’s like a seasoned pot: Most people have a favorite frying pan that just makes everything taste better,” he says. “I don’t think you could copy the flavor from our brewing kettles.”
Brewing beer in a Texas town of 2,000 that was settled by German and Czech residents in the 19th century, Mauric doesn’t use the word terroir. That’s just as well. The term already generates controversy and confusion enough for wine drinkers. Amy Trubek does a better job than most of sorting out the role of culture and geography in “The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir.” In the process, she illustrates how a 21st-century desire for scientific explanations can co-exist with a 19th century concept that has landscape, and an agrarian life, at its center.
Agrarian doesn’t necessarily mean simple. Yolande Noël, a French food scientist whose interests extend well beyond wine, told Trubek, “The best way to think about terroir is as a double helix; all the strands work up and around each other. Each aspect is necessary for the final result.”
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