Firstly, if you haven’t read this piece by Matthew Curtis over at Pellicle, go and do so.

He got a bit of stick from those that I don’t think read the article properly, and a lot of discussion from those that did.

So here’s my reply…

English is an amazingly romantic and lyrical language, when we speak French.

A great example of this is “l’esprit d’escalier”. Okay, I admit it’s not too commonly spoken in the UK but it’s one of those phrases that once we learn it, we adore it. It literally translates as “The Spirit of the Staircase” and describes that situation of thinking of the perfect reply to someone as we’re leaving and it’s too late to use that witty comeback. Another is “Je ne sais quoi” which literally means “I don’t know what” but is used to say “I can’t quite describe it.” It sounds better in French.

And then we have “Terroir” with its literal translation of “Land” or “Earth” but its meaning, as with the other two phrases, is slightly different, and more evocative. 

Many years ago I did a stint for a wine importer and they made sure we learned about wine. Not just the swill ‘n’ spit aspect, but the whole holistic approach. Everything from the vine’s ‘fiche technique’ (another lovely phrase that means ‘datasheet’) through to the infamous ‘burp’ of flavour. It was a lot to learn. But one focus of it all was the terroir; which was described to me as “the soul of the land” and I can’t think of any better way to describe it. Everything grown on that land was influenced by the land, and that influence came through in the final glass. It’s one of those things that’s hard to describe, but is something you can experience as I did, and then the penny drops. To teach us about terroir, we were given multiple wines from the same estate, different vines, different grapes, different vintages, and we asked to pick out the similarities across them all. We were then given the same style wines from other estates and asked to pick out the differences. It was only by doing this that we were able to identify the distinct flavours of that estate, the ‘soul’ of their soil. It was that soul that made that estate distinct, what made their wines distinct. 

Recently I found the same thing in cider. Little Pomona came along to Manchester Cider Club with 7 different Dabinett ciders. Each of these ciders was 100% Dabinett apples and nothing else. The only difference between them was where those apples came from; each cider’s apples came from a different orchard. We got to try, side by side, seven different orchards’ effects on the single apple variety and we got to taste the soul of those orchards. Their terroir. It exists in cider as it exists in wine, you can taste the effect of the land and the land management. If you get a chance to go to one of these Little Pomona tastings, grab it with both hands and you won’t regret it.

Which now leads us to the recent discussion of terroir in beer. 

Does beer have terroir? Can beer have a ‘soul of the soil’? 

In theory, yes it can. Beer is another agricultural product; I’d like to say ‘organic’ but as with all things in our use of language, that has a different and more specific meaning these days.

But unlike wine and cider, beer is more than one ingredient. More than one ‘soul’.

Hops especially showcase a terroir. Through helping run the Manchester Hop Project, and talking to other Hop Project leads throughout the country we’ve each been able to identify a distinct flavour to our regions, all the hops grown in Manchester for instance impart a slight hazelnut flavour to the beer regardless of the hop variety. That is the terroir of Manchester, a bit nutty. For the commercial brewers this is better highlighted with the difference between American and Slovinian grown varieties.

Can malt have a terroir? Absolutely. Do brewers ever see this terroir? Unlikely. Most malt that brewers order in may come from a single maltster, but unless it’s a heritage variety it’s very unlikely to come from a single farm. Maltsters blend grain together to provide uniformity and consistency throughout the year. In general beer isn’t seasonal and drinkers want to know that the pint of bitter they order in the autumn tastes the same as the one they had in the spring. Malt’s soul is homogenised.

As for the water that we use to make beer? It’s almost always from the tap, it usually has the minerals and chemicals knocked out of it and then added back in particular, specific, quantities to fit a perceived ideal. It’s not so much that it’s got a soul, but more that it’s been through a religious boot camp and joined a cult.

And then there is the yeast. I’m not going to go into this because it’s a whole other argument. But almost no brewery harvests local yeast and maintains that culture. So yes it’s possible; no it doesn’t really happen. But there is a soul, regardless of where it comes from.

All of these souls go to make up a beer. It’s not the soul of one place, or one land. Beer has a soul of many, it is Legion, it’s more than the sum of its parts. 

So beer doesn’t have ‘terroir’ it has something else. Its soul isn’t that of the land, it is that of the craft that makes it; and as such it needs a different word associated with it.

If we were to look to French as we do, we could use “l’esprit du métier”, the spirit of the craft or just ‘de l’artisanat’ for “of the craft”

I think this is a better way of looking at it. We already say that each brewery has a “house style,” its own “l’artisanat’ if we will. Beer’s soul doesn’t come from one field, it comes from many places, crafted together at the brewery. And that is what we should focus on appreciating.