Terroir is a word used in wine making to describe how the local environment affects the taste of a wine. Until recently it did not have a place in beer making because all brewers bought their ingredients from the same suppliers. Maybe you buy fruit or some other specialty ingredients from local farmers, but your yeast, malt, and hops probably come from a handful of providers. In recent years, the farm to table slow food movement has been adapted by brewers to create a farm to bottle ethos that is bringing terroir, among other things, to beer.
The reasons I like the farm to bottle movement is because the liquid in the glass is all that matters in the end. The fresh ingredients grown in a specific place at a specific time makes the final product taste better and it gives each brewery its own terroir or signature taste.
This is brewing going back to its beginnings. If you look at the style guidelines published by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) and the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) there are two separate designations for many styles: Traditional and American. The American style is usually the result of American brewers taking a traditional style, using the available ingredients to make the beer, and also deciding they can make it more. More hoppy, more sweet, more alcohol.
The traditional style characteristics were developed simply by what ingredients were available. What hops and malt were grown locally that brewers had easy access to? What yeast was in the air? Maybe most importantly, what water supply was being used? Czech pilsners taste different than German pilsners mostly because of the difference in the water supply used in Pilsen at the origination of the style.
One of my favorite brewers is Mystery Brewing out of Hillsborough. Eric Lars Myers, the owner and head brewer, makes some of the most interesting traditional style beers available. The best part is they are all seasonally based. Each season, based on ingredient availability, they produce a saison, a session beer, a hoppier beer, and a dark beer. While not strictly farm to bottle, meaning all local ingredients, Mystery tries to use the freshest ingredients to craft the best tasting beer possible.
The article also mentions some of my favorite breweries as part of the movement. The thing all the breweries mentioned have in common is a distinct taste and style. Usually, when talking about a brewery’s style, people mean the affect of the brewers and their staff. You get a lot of marketing buzzwords and pretty graphics that show you how cool and rebellious the brewers are. Sometimes it seems there was more care put into how the brewery looks and is perceived than how the beer tastes.
Marketing is important especially in this environment where there are breweries opening every day across the country. You must make yourself stand out in some way. However, I hope farm to bottle is even just a slight turn and return to the roots of brewing as craft beer matures.