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Terrior and beer

Have been following a conversation about the proposition that beers from certain areas have a style which results from the soil the grains are raised in, the part of the world or country and the climate in which they are brewed, that beers are subject to the same terrior effect that wines are.

In the discussion one party claims that a German or Belgian beer brewed elsewhere, cannot be authentic to style because of the terrior factor. Another party says that brewers can brew to style in any country if they brew using the same grains even if, climate, country and soil are not the same.

In other words A Belgian brewer can brew an American IPA that will be exactly the same as one from the US and an American brewer can do the same with an Belgian abbey style.

I tend to believe that the terrior argument is closer to the truth because to my taste, a Belgian hopped ale, and there are some being produced which are labeled as IPA's, fall far from the style of those brewed here.

By the same token the American Begian brewed ales, though close, don't match up against those from Belgium.

Your take?

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  1. I think this could apply in certain instances, e.g., beers inoculated by airborne microflora. Climate could sometimes come into play, but I have a hard time believing that it is going to make much difference if, for example, a beer is fermented in a unitank. Whatever air there is, it won't be there for long. Some of the differences from country to country might come from technique more than terroir. This question would seem to involve splitting hairs in many cases. A beer might vary in some really minor way that no one can detect, for example.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Jim Dorsch

      I was at Brewers plate in Philadelphia last week where the issue of Terroir in beer was discussed. The best proof of terroir was two pilsners presented by Victory Brewing, identicially brewed same time, same malts, same water, only difference were the hops that were grown on two different fields. Tasting both, you definitely noticed the difference... so terroir definitely exists.

      1. re: cwdonald

        " only difference were the hops that were grown on two different fields"

        Same hop varietal grown in two different fields?

        1. re: Chinon00

          Chinon.. yes exact same variety of Tettnanger grown in two different fields, and harvested on the same day.

          With regard to the issue of water, it is easy to adjust water to be any characteristic, so I find that the least convincing aspect of terroir.

        2. re: cwdonald

          Several years ago at GABF, John Mallett, now with Bell's Brewery, took me to two booths from the same brewpub chain. Their IPAs tasted markedly different, the only essential difference being the water supplies at the two locations.

      2. Since malt and hops can be purchased from anywhere and shipped to anywhere, certain yeasts from around the world are easily available (with exception to house yeasts that mutate/change over time), and water can be recreated with the profile from any region, all it takes is desire, skill, and a good palate to recreate any of the world's styles.

        As far as Belgium not making IPA's like we do, I don't think anyone has set out to do it exactly like US brewers, but use US IPA's and US hops as inspiration. Most still seem to use their house yeasts and although use american hops, use them in a different way. IMO "belgian" ipa (US and Belgian made) is a weird "style" since most belgian beers rely on yeast profile and US IPA's rely heavy hopping rates for flavor - add too many hops and it covers up the yeast profile - let the yeast shine and its not quite IPA-like.

        As far as US takes on belgian styles, there are some that hit the mark these days, but I find most either don't get the right yeast profile balance and tip heavily to phenolic/spicy flavors, are too heavy or sweet and don't have the drinkability, or use too many spices. I have heard some Belgian brewers describe US attempts as "cartoonish" due to heavy handedness of flavor.

        1 Reply
        1. re: LStaff

          Which american breweries do you think do a good job brewing belgian style beers? Ommegang comes to mind but I agree that most go too overboard on the spice aspect thinking perhaps that BELGIAN = LOTS OF CLOVE AND CORIANDER. Bleh...

        2. The word you're seeking here is "terroir." I think of a breed of dog when I see "terrior."

          The best way to gauge the effects of terroir on beer is with spontaneous fermentation experiments. There are differences in base malts and hops as well, and when it comes to yeast behavior, location is one of many variables that has some sort of intangible effect.

          Most modern brewers attempt to eliminate terroir effects. The big industrial brewers want a consistent product no matter where it's made, and so strive to keep not just base ingredients, but brewhouse layout, sanitization conditions, even equipment geometry as consistent as possible.

          But when you get to souring and spontaneous fermentation, whether traditional lambic or experimental styles, you'll get the closest thing to terroir that you'll see in beer brewing. You might also get terroir-like effects from things like a breed of hop grown outside of its traditional region. Good example here: Soriachi Ace. The versions grown in the Yakima Valley are more aggressive in flavor and aroma than the originals bred in Japan. Now, that's terroir.

          1. I think beers from a certain area have a certain style largely because of techniques, preferences, and a certain amount of shared experiences of the brewers. The price and availability of materials will also affect the beers being produced. This is also true of wines.

            That being said, it is undeniable that terroir is a factor in the flavor of, for example, hops, just like it is for coffee, tea, or wine. Discerning the terroir effect on a beer, however, is much more difficult for the average palate because beer is not a single ingredient drink. The use of multiple "local" ingredients in making a beer would have a greater impact on making the brew unique to that place (and time) and I'm not sure if it could be recreated elsewhere with similar grains grown in that other area.

            1. It's not so much the soil as it is the water. Think about proprietary beers like Pilsner, named for the town, Pilsen, which sits among the lovely waters that create the beer. I've read about brewers who had the local waters shipped to a temporary or new facility so that the taste of the beer would be the same - it is mostly water.

              The other factor is wild yeast. Now only the Lambics of Belgium rely on these, but you won't find these exact yeasts in the air anywhere else but in these Belgian towns. The beers ferment spontaneously.

              As much as I believe in terroir, I also recognize how a great brewer (or winemaker, or cheesemaker, etc) can create something wonderful no matter where they are.

              2 Replies
              1. re: BelgianBeerMistress

                >The other factor is wild yeast. Now only the Lambics of Belgium rely on these,

                You may want to read up on Allagash's koelschip series - and i think there is at least one other brewery in the PNW doing it as well (not sure of who though).

                1. re: BelgianBeerMistress

                  check Russian River Brewing, among others. spontaneous fermentation is no longer confined to beers brewed in Belgium.