The New Gastronome
An Alien in a Wine’s World
by Francesca Zanardi
by Francesca Zanardi
Wine production is tightly linked to the concept of terroir but is it possible to translate this discourse also to the brewing world? While lots of nations are producing craft beers, are they more than just interpretations from one another if no autochthonous style or local ingredient is used?
Terroir is a magic word in the world of wine. Even the most profane drinker knows something about it. The role that a specific soil, topography, climate, variety of grape and human intervention plays in the construction of a wine is essential, as all these characteristics are peculiar and make wine into what it is, determining its quality and linking the product to a particular place. A famous example would be that of Champagne, which is only made in the Champagne region.
From the concept of terroir, the denomination of origin was developed, an important European scheme to protect particular ingredients, food productions and culinary traditions. To better understand this particular concept, we can affirm that there are two main aspects in the definition of terroir: an original ingredient, issued from a specific land, and the human factor that consist of the know-how of agricultural practices and artisanal transformations. In theory, this concept is, therefore, applicable to any food product: from wine to bread, from cheese to jam. But what about beer?
“Beer, on the other hand, is produced locally all over the world: from big commercial companies to small microbreweries, you can find thousands of different beers in every nation!”
Beer’s history is long and forgetful. It is supposed to be the first alcoholic beverage ever produced by humans, but differently from wine, beer is made using many ingredients accessible all over the world. In fact, cereals are cultivated in every single continent (except for Antarctica) and in all different kinds of climates: from Russia to China, from Europe to America. We also have a good variety of cereals suitable for brewing, even if barley is the one that brewers prefer. The other basic ingredients of beer are equally as easily obtainable: water and yeast are almost everywhere, and hops are grown pretty much in all temperate climates as well. Beer also has the advantage that it can be brewed all year long, as it is not linked to a specific harvest and the ingredients can be dried and stored. We have examples of historical brewing nations like Germany, Belgium or the United Kingdom, but maybe due to the nature of the ingredients and their long shelf life, today the act of brewing has spread more rapidly and efficiently than winemaking, becoming a global and international practice.
Wine is strictly related to grapes that grow only in certain places and are perishable, causing a need to process them rapidly once a year in their place of origin to become durable. Only when the wine is ready, the product travels all over the world. Therefore, there was a need to enhance the lands where grapes were grown and where wine was made. Beer, on the other hand, is produced locally all over the world: from big commercial companies to small microbreweries, you can find thousands of different beers in every nation! Even if beer seems less territorial than wine, for its ease of production we have more local craft breweries all over the world than wine producers in the main wine-producing nations (Italy, France, Spain…).
Is the gap only down to the ingredient, then?
I’ve asked four insiders of the craft brewing world about their opinion to better understand this intriguing topic. Below are the contributions of Luca Giaccone, judge and author of the Slow Food Guide of Italian Beers 2021; Lorenzo “Kuaska” Dabove, the guru and prophet of craft beer in Italy and Europe; Anna Borrelli an expert at 360°degrees, sommelier of wine, beer and cider as well as a judge at competitions in Italy and abroad; and, last but not least, Ivano Astesana, master brewer at Birrificio della Granda, an artisanal brewery near Cuneo.
There are two different kinds of territoriality: the first, obviously, is related to the ingredient. The other is more refined and subtly linked to the cultural belonging, to traditions and history. I prefer to imagine brewers like chefs rather than vignerons. They, too, are able to express their creativity freely using different ingredients, either grown in their land or coming from abroad but transformed into something that reflects the taste of a place. The immense regional cuisine of Italy has thousands of examples of representative dishes that bring in ingredients from the outside: let’s think about the Piedmontese bagna cauda that is made using anchovies that aren’t from Piedmont.
When it comes to brewing, for me, the only ingredient capable of making beer is hops. The American school has shown that hops are similar to grapes in that the result changes depending on where they are grown, giving a strong characterization to the beer and the easiness to recognize it from others. The USA is a living example of a nation that has built a wide range of beers on hops, with a broad scale of different aromas and flavours, ranging from floral to fruity, citrus, resinous.
“There are two different kinds of territoriality: the first, obviously, is related to the ingredient. The other is more refined and subtly linked to the cultural belonging, to traditions and history”
To reach the same result in Italy, we need time and investments, as botanical discovery and selection of autochthonous hops require a scientific and agricultural effort. For now, we can concentrate on other locally grown ingredients like chestnuts, peaches or artichokes. And yet, this doesn’t mean that a beer made with the cardoon of Nizza Monferrato will be the only representative beer of this place. It gives a glimpse into the infinite possibilities that Italian brewers have with the vast biodiversity of their country. For me, the success of Italian craft beers is due to the elegance and balance that our master brewers have – an aspect that is recognized even abroad. The wisdom of balance and taste is the tradition that we have inherited in different sectors like gastronomy, fashion and design.
At the same time, when we taste beers for the guide, we can notice different variables from region to region: for example, in Lombardy and Veneto we have bottom-fermented beers with low levels of alcohol, high in hops with delicate floral and herbal profiles. Instead, in Piedmont, we find more structured and alcoholic beers, characterized by the malt. This is probably due to a tradition inherited by the different historical dominations. In Veneto and Lombardy, the style of beer is more similar to Germany, due to their Austro-Hungarian past. In Piedmont, we have Belgian influences related to French domination.
All in all, it seems that terroir was at the origin of beer, back when commodities or the globalisation of ingredients weren’t present yet. There were different styles for different nations but now that it is possible to have everything everywhere, the key ingredient that links the beer to its terroir remains to be the brewer!
Lorenzo “Kuaska” Dabove
This topic of terroir is super-current in the beer world! We have many discussions about it in Italy and abroad, as there is evidence that brewers were obliged to work with local ingredients before globalisation. For this reason, we have styles that originated in specific nations: from lager in Germany to porter in England and the abbey beers in Belgium. But today, we have a redefinition of what terroir is, due to the availability of ingredients all over the world. There is a search for a new identity. Currently, in Italy, we have a pre-terroir scenario with few breweries that are locally producing all the ingredients needed for their beers: barley, water, yeast and hops. We are not climatically limited in growing barley or hops, but the problem still lies in the transformation of malt in relation to the results. We don’t yet have a widespread reality of malthouses in our country, able to produce small lots of special malts for each brewery. At the same time, the cultivation of hops is still young and we don’t have enough farmers willing to join this new adventure. However, our Italian brewers are experimenting with the immense biodiversity our country has to offer, producing interesting beers with ancient varieties of grains and fruits. The same is happening in countries like Japan and the USA, where the brewer’s creativity is limitless.
“But today, we have a redefinition of what terroir is, due to the availability of ingredients all over the world. There is a search for a new identity.”
Finally, we have the chance to revive the idea of terroir even with another magical ingredient: yeast! If a brewer works with spontaneous fermentation, the ingredient is site-specific, completely related to the place of origin.
I trust in the craft beer revolution, we have encouraging signs everywhere!
In the world of wine, the concept of terroir is broad and considers the set of all the factors that characterize the raw material: the grapes, the pedoclimatic aspects and the production technique and how different vignerons transform their grapes into wine.
In the world of beer, the term terroir could perhaps be applied to the individual raw materials that are used, not so much to malt, but certainly to hops, whose characteristics strictly depend on the production area. But the most significant ingredient of beer is water, which can differ from town to town. The same recipe, using the same ingredients, made by the same brewer but produced in different places and, therefore, with different waters, will give a different result. It is up to the brewer to understand which types of beer can be produced with a certain type of water, after which he can decide to apply the technique to modify the characteristics of the water to achieve the set goal. Even the yeast has connotations linked to the territory. Just think of spontaneously fermented beers, for which the brewer prepares the must but the particular concentration of yeasts and bacteria does the rest.
“The same recipe, using the same ingredients, made by the same brewer but produced in different places and, therefore, with different waters, will give a different result.”
In Italy, the term terroir for beer is linked to the territory, not so much with local malts. They use other local ingredients like fruits, like particular grapes for the IGA (Italian Grape Ale), which has a strong link to the territory. When it comes to hops, we have some new research of Italian native hops from the University of Parma and the Italian Hops Company that are looking into finding endemic hops varieties or into breading new ones with foreign hops grown in Italy.
While the quality of the raw materials is very important, it also matters how the brewer handles them. A lack of technique on the part of the brewer can lead to poor results even with raw materials of high quality.
Beer has always been a local drink and has always reflected the characteristics of place and time. This can be seen, for example, with some German-style beers like the Gose from Goslar, the Kölsch from Cologne or the Dortmunder from Dortmund – all different and all historically produced in those towns. But beer itself was born long before it was categorized into different styles in order to foster competition.
Ivano Astesana – Birrificio della Granda
We can talk about terroir in beer but we need a new definition. To bring a famous example of the wine world: Barolo, which is located near to our brewery, is given technological know-how, which comes from a territory but could be reproduced. The raw materials, on the other hand, are inextricably linked to the microclimatic characteristics of the area, the topography and the soil. Since grapes are perishable, they are not transportable and Barolo has to be produced only in its area of cultivation.
“Beer is more cosmopolitan and globalized than wine and its diffusion would mean success for the Italian agricultural supply chain.”
For beer, on the other hand, we have more versatility. NEIPAs (New England IPAs), for example, was born in New England with local knowhow and typical raw materials. But since hops are less perishable than grapes and, therefore, better transportable, we can produce excellent NEIPAs in Piedmont. While it is true that some styles can be identified with their place of birth (Belgian Strong Ale, New England IPA, etc), when it comes to beer, the style is not confined to the country of origin. If I think of an Italian style made with Italian ingredients, I don’t imagine a limited area. Success will come when the style spreads and Italian raw materials will be demanded all over the world. Beer is more cosmopolitan and globalized than wine and its diffusion would mean success for the Italian agricultural supply chain. As a farmer, I want to ensure that small production areas, which provide a subsistence economy, are transformed and enhanced. The case of Maris Otter malt is an excellent example: it is an English malt with a particular organoleptic character, used in the UK, but is now in demand on the global market as other nations try to make English-style beer. It is a big victory for the farmers and a credit for the brewers, an example of the desirability of the product. As for the other ingredients, water is now a blank canvas that can be replicated chemically in all its parameters, but spontaneous yeasts are characterizing populations, an extreme example of terroir but still a very small niche in the brewing panorama. To tell the truth, today it is possible to buy an infinite number of yeast strains, including some varieties from certain specific areas, and then start a fermentation similar to the spontaneous one in another brewery.
To conclude, I believe that terroir is a fascinating but dynamic concept in the world of beer – we must not fossilize too much on rigid dogmas.
I’ve really appreciated the chats with those insiders of the beer world, the heterogeneity of their opinion is inspiring. To summarize, craft beer and terroir are linked and they have different hues that give us this beautiful fermenting panorama … Cheers!!