Dr. Charlie Bamforth, an Anheuser-Busch endowed professor of brewing science at UC Davis, was my first beer guru, and remains a hero of mine. His book, Beer is Proof That God Loves Us: Reaching for the Soul of Beer and Brewing, was the first book about beer that I read. In it he shares decades of knowledge on brewing science, stripping down the jargon and turning up the interesting (salvation for a liberal-arts educated reader). He offers unflinching and educated opinions about the beer industry — many of them unpopular ones — and the best part, his love of the great malt beverage practically sings off of every page, proving that romance and science are not separate entities when it comes to loving beer.
When writing this story for The Globe and Mail on whether beer has terroir, I finally got my chance to hit him up for an interview, and despite the fact I only quoted him once, he has a lot to say on the subject, so I’m eager to share it with you here. As you can see, he practically interviews himself:
Does beer have terroir?
”The answer is yes, more so than wine not only in terms of water, but other things as well. Some of the great beers in the world were developed on basis of local water. Burton-on-Trent has phenomenally hard water with high levels of calcium, and the other extreme is Pilsen in the Czech Republic which has very, very soft water. The vast majority of beers are made up of at least 90 percent water. It is a critical component. But the brutal reality today is that you can adjust the water to anything you want, so if you’re interested in making the same product in different places around the globe, you can adjust the water to exactly match the water from the brewery’s original location.
“An accomplished brewer can make the same beer in a huge number of locations by adjusting things like the water so they can achieve real consistency. That doesn’t sit comfortably with some people. We like to tell stories. Winemakers don’t try and tweak things, they just use the local raw materials and tell stories about it, and say, ‘That’s terroir.’ Brewers can do that, but on the other extreme, we don’t have to leave things as they are… We can adjust the water to whatever we want, for example, Burtonization is in the German Brewing Dictionary, it means adjusting water to match that in Burton-on-Trent.
“Is there terroir? Yes. But can I recreate that terroir in a different location by processing the water? Yes.”
Really, because I know quite a few breweries here in Canada that go on and on about their water as a distinctive aspect of their beer.
“It’s a marketing strategy about celebrating the water. It’s a very powerful marketing strategy, but it’s not true to say that I can’t recreate it. One of our local brewers here in Northern California they take the local water and de-ionize it — they take everything out and build up water composition to what they want. You can even recreate spring water, as long as you know what the content of that water is.
“The debate is: on the one hand we have the opportunity to highly control a process to produce a product that’s very, very consistent time in, and time out. The counter opinion is let’s take advantage of local differences to celebrate them, “Like, hey we’re using local water, grain, and growing our own hops… You can make beer excellently both ways, it’s all to do with passion and emotion.
“I used to work for BASS in the UK, and when I came over here 13 years ago I never drank it over here because it travels such a long way, and the beer goes stale and cardboardy. These days, it’s brewed in New York they’ve taken the recipe and adjusted the water to meet specifications, but now because it’s not traveled across an ocean, it’s fresher and better than it would have been coming all the way from Burton-on-Trent.
So is the only true terroir in wild fermentation? It’s tough to reproduce those exact conditions.
“Yeah, so there would obviously be specific organisms in that particular beer that would have a significant contribution to the local environment, and that will make a difference — but we didn’t look at ten different places for different patterns of development of the different organisms, so we can’t actually say what the variation would be, but it’d be significant.
“There’s a book I read recently that made me angry, it’s by Alice Feiring, a wine writer, where she basically champions the terroir and importance of it to the extent of rubbishing the concept of adding yeast to a wine fermentation rather than taking advantage of the natural flora. That feeling — that everything should be spontaneous — and therefore we should ignore scientific understanding to achieve excellence every time would be naive.
“Now, it’s not as though I hate the idea of local ingredients and the locavore movement when it comes to making beer — on the contrary, I quite like it. There’s a brewery here in Sacramento called Rushtaller, which I’ve done some work with, and it celebrates the proud history of brewing in Sacramento and it’s working to resurrect local hop industry, which used to be very big. And their beers also use locally-grown barley.
“The concept is wonderful and very appealing — and it appeals to me as well. There is a real beauty in that story. But when it comes down to could I take a beer from a local place and could I produce a pretty much perfect match for it thousands of miles away if I understand the water the specifications on the grain, the malt, the hops? Yes, you can recreate the product.
“Do I think there’s anything magical about a given locality? No.”
Well in terms of wine-making then, you’ve said that brewers have embraced scientific knowledge in the brewhouse in a way that winemakers have not, preferring to champion the terroir narrative. But could you, theoretically then, reproduce a match for a wine grown in a specific terroir?
“Well, I’m not an enologist, so it’s hard for me to say…
“Theoretically, is it possible to take a grape from different places and achieve a degree of consistency or match? I’d think it’d be worth exploring. If you understand the science of wine sufficiently should you be able to overcome differences from region to region? I would be amazed to think it could not be done. The chemistry of the grape is going to be complicated, but I don’t think there’s any magical molecules that you could get in some grapes that you can’t get in others, so by adjusting the process you should be able to bring grapes from two different places closer together…
“What brewers have done because of an increased understanding of the chemistry of raw materials is to make adjustments and achieve consistency. The wine guys don’t even try to do that — instead they value the beauty of variation and of local terroir, and they champion and celebrate that — and it’s a perfectly valid approach. Brewing has achieved a far greater sophistication of science, but it’s possibly moved away from the romance associated with wine.
“Do I like the attempts being made by smaller brewers to make beers that exemplify local ingredients? Yes I do, I like that very much.”