Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Terroir: Bollocks for All?

Matt at Pellicle stirred things up a bit yesterday with his post titled "There is No Such Thing as Terroir in Beer". There followed a raft of commentary on Twitter, which I got engaged in as a result of retweeting the article:

This got me thinking more about the concept of terroir in general and so I figured I'd do a little research and put my thoughts down in a blog post.

The first thing I wanted to make sure of was that I had a proper understanding of "terroir", what it is, what it isn't, and for that I turned to the world of wine, in particular this video by Konstantin Baum:

In the video, Konstantin lays out 2 competing visions of "terroir", the "naturalist" approach that focuses purely on the impacts of the soil, geology, and climate on the fruit, and the "culturalist" approach that also includes the impact of human activity on the wine. As Konstantin points out the "naturalistic" approach "is misleading in its mythic simplicity, vineyards are not naturally occurring, they are cultured land, managed by people".

I also discovered that UNESCO actually has a definition of "terroir" as being:

"a living and innovative space, where groups of people draw on their heritage to construct viable and sustainable development."

I think it is clear then that the naturalist approach to terroir is unhelpful as it diminishes the key inputs of humans in the creation of wine. I love the phrase Konstantin uses in his video, that the naturalist approach almost has a vision that "the wine makes itself, or flows out of a crack in the soil like a miracle wine fountain".

It is true that grapes will ferment in nature, as they overripen and the sugars turn to alcohol - ever wondered why wasps are more aggressive in the autumn? It's because they are pissed on fermenting fruit. However, simply fermenting fruit does not make wine, cider, or perry, if that were the case there would be no need for wine makers, cider makers, or perry makers.

So much of what I learnt about the culturalist approach to terroir actually chimes deeply with me with regard to the segment of craft brewing that I find myself drawn to, and it clarifies some of my thoughts around the problem of "local" beer. I have basically got to the point that I can no longer think of a factory that makes beer in a given location, whilst importing grain from Canada, hops from Germany, yeast strains from the UK, and removing all the mineral distinctions from their water as a "local" brewery. This is not to say that I won't drink their beer, or that I don't like them as a brewery, but they are no more special to me than a brewery making similar beers in North Carolina, California, or Germany. Surely there must be more to local than just location?

In this sense, what Matt says in his article is true. Terroir for industrial brewing is bollocks, and when I say industrial I mean it in the sense that the beer is made in a factory with a globalised supply chain that could, if the owners so desired, be picked up and plonked somewhere on the other side of the planet and make the exact same beer.

However, that is not true for all beer. 

Here in Virginia we have a distinction made in the brewing laws for a business that functions as a "farm brewery". A farm brewery is required to grow a minimum portion of their ingredients on their own land. It is a very pre-Industrial Revolution model, and one that I find deeply appealing. Just up the road from me is Lickinghole Creek Brewing, I think they were the first farm brewery in Virginia, and they grow a substantial amount of their ingredients on their 305 acre farm. Given the culturalist approach, I would argue that for Lickinghole Creek, and other farm breweries, and breweries that source the vast majority of their ingredients from their locality, the concept of terroir is most definitely not bollocks.

I think this comes back to the parting of the ways I wrote about a few weeks ago, where you have "craft" brewing as an expression of modernity (or post-modernity if they are self-consciously cool), industrial lite you could say, and then you have "artisanal" brewing which roots itself in a sense of place and tradition, where terroir is very real, and cherished.

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