We have talked about it before, but as with anything beer related it is always good to explore subjects on multiple occasions. I am talking about terrior, specifically as it applies to beer. When you think of the concept as it relates to wine it can be pretty straight forward. Wine is essentially composed of two elements, grapes and yeast. And when you really think about it yeast is down played in its importance. In a way the sole purpose of the yeast is to ferment the main flavor component (the grapes). We could get into soil composition and the effects of different strains on overall flavor profile blah blah blah, but that is neither here nor there…
We are here for the beer.
The terrior of beer is a bit harder to pin down. When we look at beer production overall we can see that pretty much any beer can be made anywhere in the world, when we get the right materials in our hands. It is a matter of changing focus. The real terrior of beer comes more from the creation of styles than it does from the materials specifically.
When you break beer origins by the regions they came from you see the terrior of the style itself. There are specific reasons why specific beers were brewed in their region of origin. A case in point (brace yourself) sake. South west Asia does not really have a history of large fields of barley or wheat. The climate itself does not work as well for a hop region. What they do have is fields fit for growing rice. Some used to consider sake a form of wine, quite possibly because of the alcohol content and the fact that it contained none of the traditionally viewed ingredients of beer. Remember when you break beer down to its essential ingredients all you need is a grain, water, and a microbe to ferment it. Sake has all of this.
In the grand scheme of things we have three essential beer regions (prior to the craft beer movement which created another region). These three regions (aside from historical changes in geography) are Britain, Germany, and Belgium. I am generalizing these just a bit for now because they bear a much more indepth discussion about historical changes some other time).
In Britain the terrior of the beers falls into a category of water and hop driven flavors. The birthplace of IPAs and pale ales. Hops are treated as a flavoring component as much as a bittering component even in the darker beers. Famous water ways (Burton being a good example) are still replicated today in attempts at recreating styles. Yeast (ale) does play a role but it is merely a minor player.
In Germany the terrior falls into the malt. Regionally in Germany different styles have grown because of the different ways the malt has been produced. Look at the differences between a helles and a Vienna lager. Both are a light style but the malt is what plays the essential role in distinguishing the two. Germany is a land traditionally of noble hops. These hops are used for balancing the sweetness of the malt and a bit for spicing but still it is the malt that is the focus of the beers. Yeast (lager) does have its regional flavor profiles but in the end its purpose is to showcase the malt.
The last region we will talk about today, Belgium follows their own path. Belgium is a yeast oriented brewing region. Just as the other regions have distinctive tastes based on their own terrior, Belgian beers carry a distinct taste that is brought about primarily by the yeast. They may use all the other components to bring about different seasonings but if the yeast isn’t right the beer isn’t right. Even more so, this region still spontaneously ferments certain styles, yet another example of the terrior of the region.
I think it’s time I had a pint all this thinking hurts….