The terms traceability and terroir are massively important when it comes to selling high quality coffee, tea and wine – but much less so in beer. This blog post suggest some of the reasons the beer industry hasn’t fully embraced these terms as yet, and some signs that it is changing.
Wine, coffee and tea jump out as clear examples, but there are many more where part of the attraction of a high quality (craft/artisan/premium/whatever) product is that the customer knows where it – and it’s components – came from. That traceability conveys a belief that all the individuals involved, from the farmer to the seller, will have been treated at least somewhat fairly. That perception may or may not be true for individual cases, but overall I believe that businesses which are willing to be open about their sourcing will tend to behave more fairly than those who are unwilling. This traceability also allows farmers and suppliers to build their own reputations with the end consumer, which builds demand for things made using their produce.
Terroir is a wine term, meaning the flavour imparted to a natural product by the land on which it is grown – incorporating everything from the effect of the micro-climate, the soil chemistry, altitude and much more. It’s part of what drives wine, coffee and tea geeks – that the same plant stock, grown on different farms but using the same techniques, will produce different flavours.
Wine is well known for the value that appellations and farm reputation can add to a bottle, but this is true in coffee and tea too. Coffee farms which have a reputation (possibly through Cup of Excellence or World Barista Championship success) can be highly sought after. Teas produced from famous tea trees, such as Dan Congs and similar, attract high premiums. Rarely does beer achieve this. There are still sought after beers, but this is typically from buzz around the brewery, not because of their ingredients. The brewers are seen as the ones who create flavour, rather than focusing on the role their ingredients plays.
Why is this? Well, most obviously, even a simple beer combines water, malted barley, hops and yeast – all of which impact the result. On top of that, the brewing process is more complex than the others mentioned. This certainly makes it more difficult for a drinker to pick out what differences are due to ingredients and which to the process. This is further complicated by the interaction of those ingredients – the flavour contribution of the hops, for example, is far from a simple result of amounts and times of hop additions. It’s not even entirely determined during the boil, but also by factors like the yeast used and all the many variables that in turn effect fermentation.
On a pragmatic note, it’s also more difficult for small breweries to source distinctive ingredients. Breweries don’t control the barley that a maltser uses – they can only chose the maltser they buy from. Nor can they chose the hop farm they work with – they can only chose from the options the hop merchant gives them. This is an issue for small coffee roasters too – they can only buy what importers offer. However, demand drives the market and you can see coffee importers recognising the needs of their customers for traceability, exclusivity and terroir in their sourcing. We may yet see more of this from hop merchants and maltsters.
So, given all these challenges, why should we think terroir and traceability will take off in beer? Well, firstly we look to the U.S., who have lead the way in many craft beer trends. Rogue, massive by the U.K. craft beer standards, now have their own Hop and Barley farms. A read of Stan Heironymus’ Brewing Elements book Hops also tells stories of more and more brewers traveling to hop farms and searching for clarity of their sourcing process for their own production purposes – ripe for becoming blog posts and marketing. Similar stories appear in John Mallett’s Malt book from the same series (although there is no doubt barley varieties have received far less buzz than hops).
Secondly, good small brewers need to charge more for their beers to cover the ingredients they use and the extra time and hours of work it needs versus a less technically proficient product or one which has benefited from economies of scale. Sooner or later, traceability and terroir will (I hope?) become tools in justifying this to consumers.
Additionally, we can look to the audience for these beers. Single hop beer series have been around for a while now – BrewDog’s IPA is Dead is the first I remember trying, with Cloudwater’s series of four British hopped lagers being the most recent. I don’t think I’m alone in my interest in these kind of brewing experiments, given the apparent interest brewers are still showing in making them. So, what about the next step? What about two beers both single hopped with Cascade, but one with British Cascade and one with American Cascade? What about two beers single hopped, but with the same hop grown on different farms?
Finally, while brewers haven’t embraced this link to farmers, there has quietly been movement from the other side. Stocks Farm, in Suckley near Worcester, grows hops and apples. Since the 2014 harvest they have been selling hops from the farm online, to homebrewers around the world. For homebrewers in the U.K. this is a big step forward – many homebrew shops sell hops that don’t even list their year of harvest, let alone details on their origin. This has given homebrewers the chance to try not only try hops with traceability but new and exciting hop varietals – last year it was Jester, and this year tiny lots of GP75 & GN37 went on sale, experimental new varieties that they are trialing on the farm.
With the greater complexity of beer’s components, it’s likely that it will never put terroir and traceability front and centre in the way high end wine, coffee and tea have. However, I hope these qualities will be increasingly considered and emphasised by farmers, brewers and beer sellers as a way to compete in a marketplace where it is increasingly difficult to find new twists to make a beer distinctive.