Monday, June 6, 2011

Is Your Beer Local?

Buy Fresh, Buy Local. A nice slogan for an idea which I have a lot of sympathy for. I like to support local brewers, Mrs Velkyal and I enjoy days out fruit picking in the counties surrounding Charlottesville, and then making jams, chutneys and booze with the produce, we sometimes wander up to the farmers markets in the area and see if there is anything of interest (cynical aside, I really didn't know that bead jewellery grew on a farm!). So yes, in a perfect world, I would be happy to buy most of the stuff I eat and drink from local suppliers.

I have said many times that one of the things that Mrs V and I both love about this part of Virginia is that it is so booze friendly, wineries aplenty, a slew of good breweries, cider makers and even distillers. Yes, it is good to be a drinker in central Virginia. Even so, my overactive brain has been getting the better of me of late with regards to buying fresh and local, and wondering if there isn't an element of hypocrisy within the beer world in promoting such an idea?

I find it a little disingenuous for brewers to support the "buy local" concept when it comes to consumers going to the pub or supermarket and making their choice for the evening, but then not supporting local suppliers when it comes to buying their own ingredients. I think this is particularly pertinent here in Virginia, where during the Colonial Era, the Commonwealth was essentially the Kent of the Colonies. By the middle of the 19th century, Virginia alone was producing nearly 700 imperial tons of hops a year (that's 750 US tons or 680 metric tons). Hops were once an integral part of Virginia agriculture, just like tobacco. Unfortunately I couldn't find any figures on commercial hop farms, but I do know that Blue Mountain Brewery has a small hop farm, as do Devils Backbone, and both support a local hop farmer.

This kind of thinking is something that should be encouraged. If brewers are going to jump on the buy local bandwagon as a way of inducing people to buy their beer, then they should likewise make a commitment to buying locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. Obviously brewers need to source their ingredients from wherever they can in the absence of local providers, but encouraging small businesses by buying up their crops is one way that could encourage greater localisation of the beer that we buy. It might also serve as an antidote to the increasing blandness of many a brewery's lineup of beer, which, let's face it, is becoming as boringly dominated by IPA and other assorted hop bombs as the macro brewing industry is dominated by pale lager.

Who knows, if brewers were to source their ingredients locally, we might end up with the situation were a Virginia IPA becomes as distinct from a West Coast IPA as it would be from an English IPA. The alternative would be admitting that none of the ingredients are locally sourced and the carbon footprint of the beer in your hand is far higher than you would like to think about.

8 comments:

  1. There is a brewey/brewpub, up here in troy NY — Brown's, that has a rather large hop operation. I beleive that they either grow and malt their own barley or grow it themeselves and have it malted locally. They've taken local to the extreme!

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  2. I don't think the carbon footprint of the hops in anyone's beer, whereever they come from, is the most urgent problem to address. Hops are light to transport. You probably use more carbon cooling the beer down in the fridge. Otherwise, yes, it would be good for brewers to use local suppliers. But let's get things in perspective. The biggest change individual drinkers can make is cycling to the liquor store instead of driving, and drinking draft beer instead of packaged beer.

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  3. Anon,

    I agree entirely with the last sentence there that drinkers should be "drinking draft beer instead of packaged beer" - that would mean more custom for pubs, and thus more demand for pubs, and then hopefully more pubs! A world with more pubs is my kind of world.

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  4. As regards the carbon footprint of beer, see this report on Fat Tire, which Charles Bamforth's book discusses: http://www.stanford.edu/~sjdavis/NBB-FT.pdf

    The executive summary at least is interesting reading, and as per the above comment glass and retail make up about 50% between them.

    Nick

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  5. Nick,

    A fascinating paper for sure - I read the summary and skimmed the rest, though will read it in more detail later tonight.

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  6. I enjoy supporting local businesses, but buying local for the sake of it, doesn't really do anything for me. Last time I was in the Pacific Northwest, where locality-pride designations plaster every other business like WWII era propaganda, I started to get the feeling that there's something culty and xenophobic about it. Surely I can enjoy cheese or beer from England, Belgium or some other US state? Also, like the "craft" designation, it says absolutely nothing about quality.

    I think breweries especially have an opportunity to highlight and benefit from local tastes. Show me that your product is local by brewing something interesting! It's boring to see endless west coast IPAs and pale ales everywhere when there are enough diverse regions in this country to justify tons of variety.

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  7. "It's boring to see endless west coast IPAs and pale ales everywhere when there are enough diverse regions in this country to justify tons of variety."

    Amen!

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  8. "A world with more pubs" is in the business plan.

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