Learning to love constraint in brewing, or, Globalization and the terroirs of music, soccer formations, and local beer

Written this past Sunday, but set aside for some editing and posted in time for Boak & Bailey’s latest call for long reads.

It was raining hard this morning; nice and cool for a usually stifling Santa Cruz this time of year. A good morning to sleep in, watch Man U nick a win away at Arsenal, and do some chores. During the few more dire spells of the game, I zoned out and read Martyn Cornell’s recent talk in Norway, “Place-based beer, a world-wide movement.” An engaging read, albeit mostly familiar.

Scandinavia is a hotbed for the place-based cuisine, with the Nordic Food Lab and others leading the way in a movement to promote a new Nordic approach to food that emphasizes local ingredients and a harmonic embrace of what place can provide on a seasonal basis. (I briefly started a MOOC on the “New Nordic Cuisine” and last a couple weeks before work drowned it out; but it was fascinating while I lasted). The Lab’s understated-but-inspired Family Meal blog is often a source of meal ideas in our home, and the principles of the movement exert a specific influence here in Bolivia, explicitly driving the idea behind Claus Meyer’s Gustu restaurant up in La Paz (which, as far as I can tell, has by far and away the most comprehensive Bolivian beer menu in the country, simply because they’ve put effort towards it). Their ten principles behind the Bolivian Gastronomic movement are worth perusing to see how these are being applied outside of Scandinavia.

Musical terroir

But Cornell’s talk dwells on the connection between geographic place and beer, and yield a number of thoughts about much more than beer. First, this kind of thinking about terroir makes me think a lot about how it might relate to–or was related to–to music. I spent most of high school behind a Middle Eastern firewall, during Audiogalaxy’s heyday. I’d scour the various old metal magazines I’d carried home with me from summers in North America, reading them all at last three times, highlighting and circling the bands I thought had potential. Then I’d have to narrow down the ones that seemed to have the most promise and carefully select which of the few mp3 files available to download. After all, each one of these songs was an hours-long commitment back then.

Evenings were spent with me clogging up our house’s phone lines watching the download percentages creep up at an agonizingly slow pace. Then when my parents would kick me off the dialup, I’d be left with 23% of one file or another, so you’d have just the preview and wonder what comes next, practically salivating in anticipation. I have a distinct memory of the frustrated chills when this song cut out at the 0:53 mark.

It was just getting to the good part. Finally, it’d download and I’d binge-listen for the next couple days until the next song finished. This routine truly taught me to loathe the filler of a throwaway instrumental song.

I swear this eventually has to with beer.

One of the defining marks of the pre-easy file sharing era was that you still had strong schools of distinct geographic musical schools within genres. For example, At the Gates was the pre-eminent example of the Gothenburg school of melodic thrash metal. Groups like Cro-Mags, Agnostic Front, Sick of it All, and Madball laid the rough contours of a punk-driven, chunky hardcore sound from New York City, while in southern California, thrash exerted a bit of influence over hardcore and it came out with a more riffy, breakdown-focused school of thought. DC had a thriving scene that emphasized what now is often enshrined as “post-hardcore.”

CDs and mail-order made cross-seeding of influences easier, but internet file-sharing was like a proverbial nail in the coffin for the growth of regional sounds as any band could be just as easily influenced by another regardless of location and regular, easy access to their music. I’m not pining for a forgotten old time–I like that I have access to enormous back catalogs of some of my favorite bands and new ones I’ve recently discovered–but some extent, this probably has a homogenizing effect. Or, if not homogenizing, then at least it severs the connection between musical style/influence and geography.

A detour into the globalization of soccer

As an example, in Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue that the countries and leagues that have the most cross-pollination in coaching and players from around the world will benefit from the highest levels of play. It’s essentially an argument that in a free market of soccer ideas, the best ideas will win out and yield the best styles of play. So, the ideal in this case is not, say, England sticking to its “traditional style” and lobbing as many crosses as they can at Peter Crouch’s head, but to incorporate the best forms of play available to them. But, this has a broad homogenizing effect. As possession-focused play is demonstrated by Barcelona to be highly effective, the 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 is adopted widely and the traditional 4-4-2 is torn apart time and again.

Across the Atlantic, Jurgen Klinsmann takes notice and imposes the 4-3-3 style up and down the US player development pyramid so that in the long term, the US can be competitive with the rest of the world. Thus the homogenizing effect. One might argue that Barcelona’s La Masia academy proves that developing an indigenous school of play is more important than incorporating outside influences, but as a Spurs fan, I’d say that the history of North London EPL teams in general proves that sticking to a rigid ideology of play does not lead to many trophies.

Globalization is great–it allows for a much freer spread of information and ideas. Also, globalization sucks–Starbucks opened this weekend in Bolivia, and you can bet that Pumpkin Spice is one of the options. So what does that mean for beer?

Cornell’s cases

Cornell provides a number of examples in his talk of brewers that are trying to embrace the concept of terroir. But, terroir seems to be more an expression of ingredients, time, weather, climate, etc., in such a way that each vintage is notably different. Thus, Cornell’s examples of the Sierra Nevada and Rogue estate beers make sense as expressing terroir in a way comparable to which wine uses the word. But, as he points out, they’re also prohibitively expensive for most brewers. Likewise, if “local” is the primary delineation for terroir, there are going to be places that just can’t brew a local beer. One of barley or hops will not be available. (And yeah, you opt for a gruit without hops, but pushing that from novelty to something defining a geography is tough.)

Reading through the various style guidelines, taxonomies and typologies that are available, styles are often as much based on process as ingredients. But, as Cornell again points out, these are all easily replicable pretty much anywhere in the world. I could imitate the temperatures of a lagering cave in Germany using refrigeration here in Bolivia and create a Helles.

I thought Lars Marius Garshol’s recently posted rough guide to Lithuanian Beer really quite fascinating in this meditational context on beer styles. He reflects, “I found a whole beer culture, complete with its own frames of reference and styles of beer, effectively developed independently of the rest of the world.” In this usage, “independence” is not exactly a value at present in North America, where everyone scrambles to track down a Heady Topper or Pliny, regardless of where they live. Most of the “white whales” of the beer world hardly deserve the comparison to Moby Dick because mail-order makes them accessible. (Heck, in Cornell’s prior post, he notes that one of the greatest “white whales” of North American beer, 3 Floyds’ Dark Lord, was available on tap in Copenhagen.) Yet Garshol’s point seems to be that what makes Lithuanian beers so fascinating was their relative remoteness from the main currents of brewing.

Isn’t that how the world developed many of its best known styles? Circumstances, technology, history all exerted some kind of isolation or constraint upon brewers that dictated the choices they could make.

So at least from a perspective that wants to emphasize the local and indigenous it’s almost unfortunate that we live in an era of such unprecedented economic wealth and logistical possibilities. The freedom to choose and obtain any ingredient is a detriment to indigenous style, even while it’s equally a boon to provide the flavors and possibilities of another place to their area. I’m certainly not complaining that I could carry some Belgian yeast packets and American hops with me to Bolivia so that I can drink more than chicha (which I enjoy, but I like variety as well). Cornell summarizes this:

The difficulty we have in maintaining that there is such a thing as “beer terroir”, of course, is that all the factors that directly make a beer what it is can be reproduced, today, anywhere in the world. Grains, hops and other ingredients can be transported, if necessary, around the world. Water can now be demineralised and remineralised to match any location you like. Off-the-shelf yeasts to brew any style of beer you desire can be bought via the internet. And you can install a Yorkshire Square in Adelaide, or a Finnish kuurna in Argentina, or any other piece of kit anywhere you like, to imitate the brewing traditions of a land thousands of miles away.

Is it then impossible to expect to find new styles or schools of brewing in particular? I’m not terribly sure. Perhaps if a group of brewers in a particular area were to begin to work together to develop an approach or voluntarily submit themselves to a set of constraints on their choices, you might see something evolve. I’m not entirely sure. The strongest zeitgeist among North American brewing culture seems to be one that wants an abundance of choice, although the Norwegian group that Cornell presented to is obviously looking inward or to their immediate surrounding for inspiration.

If I were to throw an argument into the ring, I think that a terroir-driven beer would be one with the least influence exerted by the brewer as possible. Made with local ingredients (within a particular radius of the brewing site), and fermented at the ambient temperatures–if part of the prevailing definition of terroir is climate, than take the plunge and really let climate exert influence. And of course, local yeasts to ferment it all. This calls for supporting projects like Bootleg Biology so that every “place” has a native yeast (or several) to pitch in.

Learning to value constraint

Something I’ve enjoyed these past few years in Bolivia is, in fact, the constraint. Sure, I could order anything via air mail and get it here, but I’m working under budget limitations, so over time I’ve had work under various constraints. There’s only one maltster in the country, and they provide pilsner malt and chocolate malt–not crystal/caramel malts. This, combined with the abundance of local sugars dictated a general lack of maltiness, drier and lighter-bodied results. (To be fair, I’ve also grown to understand just how much influence a base malt can exert over a final product, and come to miss access to variety of options, but still, this is an exercise in lemonade-making.) Without an easy form of temperature control for fermentation and living in the tropics, managing fermentations is a high-effort challenge, so it ends up favoring beers that express themselves through yeast byproducts. There are currently no hops grown here, so I can only brew with the half and whole pound bags of Palisade, Willamette, and Columbus that I brought with me–if there were a local source, that’s probably the bulk of what I’d brew with.

At least in the Global North, consumer preference dictates that variety is the spice of life. And why not? We have so many options and the world is our oyster, so who wouldn’t want to try as much as you can? I certainly do. But, the pursuit of an identity, style, or approach that is geographically constrained will require some kind of commitment to those constraints. And not purely to the products and ingredients of the place, but to its people. Beer is a social construct, and it takes a society of individuals brewing together and sharing ideas as much as ingredients. Again, this is where Garshol’s work on Norwegian farmhouse brewing is illustrative as to what it might look like for a community to develop a style–in the case of Norway, it’s driven by tradition. In today’s world, tradition tends to die, and while rescuing traditions leads to lovely results like the exploding popularity of Berliner Weisses, beer culture is not static, and I’d hope that there are new styles and movements awaiting us.

Globalization does not favor isolation, but beer styles most often seem to have developed from certain regional isolations–or if not isolations, then regional critical masses of people who are highly conversant with one another. How you develop that kind of locally emphatic character in a world of geographically-unbound social media a question that demands a community organizer.

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