Homebrewing in the unexpected places (pt. II)

Randy Mosher and the Global Homebrewing Movement

Zymurgy’s recent article by Randy Mosher on global homebrewing is an interesting read, although it disappointed me with its rather shallow attempt to explore these themes of national-level style identity in brewing, to be perfectly honest. Take his visit to an Argentine homebrewing club, where they were putting together a porter. Here’s the excerpt from the preface to the included recipe:
“I was invited to a beer festival in the beach resort city of Mar Del Plata, informed that there would be homebrewers waiting for me there. I was led to the middle of the room where two 10-gallon systems were going full tilt, one with a porter and the other a brown ale. The brewers anxiously asked, “Mister Randy, Mister Randy, what should we add?” It was Sunday afternoon, and of course we had to think of something that we knew we could get, so we settled on black pepper and a pinch of nutmeg for the brown ale, and a kilogram (2.2 lb) of dulce de leche (for the porter).”

Alright, my annoyance is probably an anal reading of, “Mister Randy, Mister Randy, what should we add?” which to me seems to portray them as children. Still, though, the uniquely Argentine addition in this recipe essentially comes down to dulce de leche, which is a widely available and used type of lactose. Not that unique, really. Certainly not enough to develop a distinctly “Argentine” beer or brewing tradition out of it. Actually, the closest thing to a tradition might be this mention:
“A beer called Dorada Pampeana, or “Pampas Gold,” survives from the very beginnings of Argentine homebrewing, 20 or more years ago. In those days, anyone who wanted to brew had to beg a brewery to sell a bag of lager malt and some local Argentine Cascade hops. Grown way down south in Patagonia, they’re a little rough around the edges. Liquid yeast was-and still is-difficult to obtain there, so a dry yeast called Nottingham was most often used. Dorada Pampeana is considered a test of skill among homebrewers.”

Now THAT is close to a defined Argentine beer. How so? What makes it unique? What makes it “Argentine”? To my eye, I see a tradition, and time-bound element that comes out of a shared geographic narrative: “In those days, anyone who wanted to brew had to beg a brewery to sell a bag of lager malt and some local Argentine Cascade hops.” Second, you have a fairly defined set of ingredients: lager malt, Argentine Cascade hops, and a Nottingham dry yeast. As far as I’ve found Nottingham as a dry yeast has multiple sources, so this seems to allow some room for flexibility. Essentially—and unfortunately, if we’re arguing that this be considered as a distinctly “Argentine” ale style—this is just a SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) beer with Argentine ingredients. BUT, if you consider that Pilsner and lager traditions call for simplicity in the grain bill—and, as Mosher notes, “Dorada Pampeana is considered a test of skill among homebrewers”—it does address (and to some extent, justify) the lack of a more distinct malt bill. This almost might be a beer to showcase an Argentine terroir (although that is a long discussion I will get to/ignore elsewhere).

Argentine hops: sorry, The Cascades, but I suspect Patagonia gives you a run for your money. And I say that having lived in the shadow of Mt. Baker for years.

The difficulty here, though, is that the only thing that really makes this unique from a variety of other pale ales are the hops: Argentine Cascades. And obviously there’s a weakness to that because they’re Cascades—not a new hybrid, not something distinctly Argentine, although I’m no expert on hops (or anything, for that matter) and perhaps you could make a strong argument that in fact they are a distinct variety at this point. Does “rough around the edges” qualify? Then, maybe, you approach the strength of argument needed to push Dorada Pampeana as a style of beer. (All this discussion makes me think I need to track down some of those hops and have a go at it! I have everything else…)

So, based on that recipe and keeping in mind the BJCP styles, I’ve distilled two really strong elements that go into defining a style, in order of importance:

  1. Tradition based in a historical narrative that is geographically distinct
    1. A fairly set ingredient bill
  2. Unique, local ingredient(s)

Why do I order it like that? Look at the BJCP guidelines and note that tradition takes precedence. You can see them in the names: English, American, Belgian, German, Irish, Scottish, and then even more specific: Flanders, Munich, Bohemian, Vienna, California, and so on. Each has that combination of historical narrative and geographically distinct location. Next, ingredient bills are also important and defined, but—maybe this is just the ethos of N. American homebrewing that I inherent—they’re also quite flexible, unless you’re a purist or following Reinheitsgebot. In other words, the final product (ends) generally takes precedent over the way you got there (means). And finally, the real problem with using local ingredients as the limiter of a style is that local ingredients are hardly ever unique anymore. Mosher’s use of dulce de leche is just lactose. Yes, it’s a dessert staple for most of South America, but it’s hardly Argentina-centric. Or take another of his examples, cashew juice being used in Brazilian beers from the caju fruit, as they call it here in Bolivia. Oh wait, that’s just it, we have it here in Bolivia too. (Although to be fair, I was introduced to it by a Brazilian, so perhaps I’m being a tad harsh there.) Finding a truly local ingredient is very hard and probably just ends up being (ab)used as a novelty item 98% of the time.

A quick digression

Actually, at this point, it might be worth considering the idea of terroir as applied to wine. However, I a) know way too little to talk about it intelligently and apply it to beer, and b) while I might like to reductionistically summarize my opinion of beer and its relation to food as, “beer is the new wine,” beer still retains a certain ontological distinction from wine (and coffee and anything to which the term “single origin” might be applied to) in that it is not so exclusive. That’s terribly enigmatic to say and possibly worth another essay, but I won’t explore it for now.

Next post I’ll start trying to apply the three criteria above to Bolivia.

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