Friday, March 2, 2012

Local? Really?


One of my infrequent jaunts into the world of The Session today, the theme for which is "local beer" and is hosted by Matt over at Hoosier Beer Geek.

I like to support my local breweries, especially people such as Devils Backbone, Starr Hill and Blue Mountain Brewery. I am not a fan of South Street Brewery in the centre of Charlottesville, and I am yet to get out to Wild Wolf. However, is there a distinction between local breweries and local beer?

My problem with the term "local beer" is that so often the ingredients being used by "local breweries" are anything but local. Malts come from Canada, the UK, Belgium and sometimes Germany, hops likewise come from a raft of countries, including the latest craze for Antipodean hops. Yeast is sourced from multinational companies with libraries of strains again spanning the globe. Want to brew a witbier? No problem, order a Belgian yeast specifically for use in witbiers, use the Weihenstephan strain for making a German hefeweizen, Nottingham for an English ale, or even Prague's Staropramen for making that Bohemian pilsner you've been dreaming about.

That pretty much leaves the water as the only genuinely local element of a beer, but how many breweries strip their water of all the minerals and salts which make regional water a driving force in the history of developing beer styles and then add back the required minerals for a particular style? Imagine London and Dublin had soft water instead of hard, porter and it's offspring, stout, would likely be very different beers. For decades after Josef Groll developed the Pilsner style of pale lager, the brewers of Munich struggled to create a pale beer using the Munich water, until Spaten cracked it in the 1890s.

So when a brewery adds foreign malts and foreign hops to a stripped out water source, modified to mimic the water from Burton, Dublin or Plzeň, and ferments the resultant wort with a foreign yeast strain, can you in all honesty call that beer "local"? Sure it might be "craft", whatever that pointless term means, but let's not get misty eyed and romantic and think of it as local beer.

6 comments:

  1. I respectfully disagree. Not that I think I can make an argument that will change your mind.

    Not sure if this analogy works. A jewelry store in Ketchikan, Alaskan, under absentee ownership, operating only in summer months, in fact only when cruise ship passengers are ashore, is not local.

    But one where a local jeweler makes, perhaps using parts shipped from Montana, what is for sale and operates year round, is local.

    Thus the jewelry is local, even if not "native Alaskan."

    I think the product (pardon me for calling beer a product) of a local artisan is local.

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  2. Thanks for your response Stan.

    Is there a distinction, and perhaps I am splitting hairs somewhat finely here, between "locally produced" and "local"?

    Local to me suggests something that reflects the place from which it comes, rather than something that could assembled elsewhere just as efficiently.

    This is also one of the reasons I am not convinced by the concept of terroir being applied to beer.

    BTW - no problem at all with beer being called a "product", that's exactly what it is as a "thing produced by labour".

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  3. Local to me suggests something that reflects the place from which it comes, rather than something that could assembled elsewhere just as efficiently.

    And I'm probably splitting the hair further to say it depends what the (local) artisan adds.

    Every brewery has its own quirks, and every ingredient reacts differently in different environments. Westmalle, Westvleteren and Achel, exact same yeasts. But handled differently, and in very different fermentation vessels. The result is distinctively different beers.

    So, at the risk of splitting still more hairs, I would agree that not all local products end up being "local." the producer, in this case a brewer, has a choice.

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  4. It's economic. Jobs are local, more of the money spent stays local, etc. Beyond that the brewpubs do what they can to stay local as well. Blue Mountain grows hops on the premises, Devils Backbone has gone with local hop farmers, they both source lots of food locally for their menus.

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  5. Dan,

    That may explain why I like Devils Backbone and Blue Mountain! They seem to go beyond the bumper sticker and try to encourage local hop farmers and the like. Given the amount of barley grown in Virginia it would be nice to see more of it end up as malt.

    Stan,

    I agree that the artisan brewer brings a great deal to the beer, and perhaps that is the great thing about beer which needs far more celebration, beer is a very human product.

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  6. "beer is a very human product"

    Except when it's not. And that's something we need to be on the lookout for.

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