Does beer have terroir?

iStock photo

iStock photo

The concept of terroir and its influence are enthusiastically debated in the wine world. Very few of the beer geeks I asked cared one whit about terroir, and hadn’t even given it a thought before I asked.

After some debate, they decided that although it was an interesting philosophical question, terroir didn’t matter to their beer drinking experience or influence their beer purchases.

The casual beer drinker isn’t interested in the minutiae of which malts or hops are chosen for the beer, let alone where they’re grown. They just care that the final product tastes good. So there you have it. The beer world doesn’t care about terroir.

Enter Harley Smith and Tracy McLean of Longwood Brewing. They care. They care a lot.

But before we get to why they care, and why you might also, allow me to drone on about what “terroir” means. Indulge me please, I read a LOT on the topic.

Terroir is the concept that states that where something grows affects its make-up in many ways, most importantly its flavour.

Terroir accounts for natural influences like soil and climate, often in very small areas of land, producing different characteristics in crops. If identical crops grown a couple of kilometres apart have measurable differences from each other, those differences are attributed to terroir, and are believed to affect flavour.

The concept of terroir grew out of Burgundy, France, evolving from a defining aspect of agricultural production into a marketing concept and economic protection mechanism.

“Terroir is about asserting and justifying differences at local and even micro levels and ultimately of acquiring social, economic and political benefits from such claims,” according to Marion Demossier of the University of Bath.

We can thank terroir for the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France and the American Viticultural Areas (AVA). In a nutshell, these two systems protect the names of geographical regions from being used on products from outside those areas.

No calling that bubbly wine “champagne” unless those grapes were grown in the Champagne region!

Terroir is meant to evoke a sense of place. And some places just produce better tasting things, OK?

But do not mistake terroir for the locavore movement. Although related to farm-to-table, terroir does not necessarily celebrate local products. It is concerned with which growing areas produce the best crop, and the use of traditional methods to bring out that unique flavour in the finished product.

The French know you get your wines from specific regions, your cheeses from others and your produce from yet others.  There is none of the 100-kilometre diet in terroir. If the best crop grows 600 km away, then that is the one that should be had.

From a marketing perspective, terroir is a golden concept. Elevate one area’s foodstuffs above the rest and give people a story to go along with the final product, and they’re lining up to pay large sums for it.

If you can convince the world of your superiority, tourists will flock to your anointed lands and spread the doctrine, multiplying your customer base and driving up profits as they go.

If you’re still with me after that long trip through terroir, you won’t be surprised that not much about it makes me eager to apply it to my beloved beer.

But wait! I want beer to claim terroir! Not least because then we can convince whoever becomes the agricultural minister that beer has gravitas – that beer is as important to the economy as wine. Then they’ll change the ALR rules to allow Persephone

Brewing to keep their farm brewery, and joy will abound!

Hear ye! Hear ye! I propose that, just like the New World took Old World brewing traditions and made them our own, we take the Old World concept of terroir and make it our own. Let’s keep the sense of place, the belief that where something is grown comes out in its flavour, and the desire to produce the best crop. We’ll ditch the protectionism, the profiteering and the snobbery.

And this is where Harley and Tracy make their entrance.

Familiar with terroir from drinking wine, Harley and Tracy associate the term with Longwood’s beer.

“It seemed to aptly describe what we were doing, which is simply supporting our local farmers to create a community-driven beer,” they told me. Terroir is important to them “because it describes the regional flavour derived from years of working with the farm community to create a uniquely local beer.”

As they point out, nothing tastes as good as that tomato you grew in your backyard/container garden.

“If you want to create a uniquely original flavour there is no substitute for controlling all your ingredients from start to finish.” Yes! This is how terroir matters!

One-hundred per cent of Longwood’s current hop supply comes from within 20 km of the brewery, and 50 per cent of their barley comes from central Vancouver Island. They rely on the local community to buy their beers and in turn they support their local growers. Theirs is a reciprocal relationship from which we all benefit. It’s the New World version of the farmhouse ale!

Longwood is among many BC craft breweries that brew with authenticity, integrity and strong commitment to the communities they serve. The use of locally grown, organic, creative and foraged ingredients is becoming widespread as craft beer comes of age. If that’s what terroir can mean, then damn, I’m glad it’s in my beer!