Session #61: What Makes Local Beer Better?

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Our 61st Session is hosted by Matt Robinson — a.k.a. The Hoosier Beer Geek — and he’s asking us to consider the question What Makes Local Beer Better? Here’s how he puts it:

The topic I’ve been thinking about is local beer. The term is being used by just about every craft brewer in the country. What does it really mean though? Is it more of a marketing term or is there substance behind the moniker? This month I want to think about what makes local beer better? I’m not just talking about the beer itself, although it’s the focal point, but what makes local beer better? My connection to local beer is far from thinking that my beer is actually “local.” Maybe you don’t agree with me, and you can write about that. Bonus points for writing about your favorite local beer and the settings around it being local to you.

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I’ve been thinking about this one a bit lately, too, mostly in terms of what most people aren’t talking bout, which is that for many, possibly most, climates the two most common agricultural ingredients of beer cannot be grown and what that means for their ultimate status as local products.

I’ll ignore the question about whether local beer is better, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s not as interesting to me personally. Bad beer can be made halfway around the world as easily as next door, and vice versa. To my way of thinking, good beer is the result of a skilled brewer, using good ingredients, regardless of where they happen to be brewing.

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There used to a phrase you’d hear as the craft beer movement was gathering steam in its early days: “Think Globally, Drink Locally.” A play on words of “Think Globally, Act Locally,” a phrase that was coined in the late 1960s or 70s (no one’s quite sure); it originally related to town planning and the environment.

But it’s no surprise that early craft brewing placed an emphasis on drinking local, since for most of beer’s history it was only a local product. Beer didn’t used to travel very well, or very far. That’s why at its peak in the 1870s, there were over 4,000 breweries in the United States alone. Every town had at least one brewery to slake the thirst of its residents. When you went to the next town, you drank their beer. When you went to the nearest big city, you could drink perhaps dozens of different beers from their local breweries.

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The First Locavores

In fact, I think craft breweries presaged the newer locavore movements taking place in most communities over the last few years. When the word “locavore” was chosen as Oxford’s 2007 “word of the year,” it was only two years old, having been coined right here in the Bay Area by a group of four women in San Francisco. The original idea was to restrict your diet to food grown or produced within a 100-mile radius. But it also emphasizes that local ingredients are fresher, more nutritious, taste better and are ultimately better for the environment, too. And that message certainly seems to spreading. Are there many towns today that don’t have a farmer’s market?

That’s also the same idea that early craft breweries were trying to get across. Fresh beer tastes better. So the closer to the source one is, the fresher the beer is likely to be, not to mention the economic advantages. By buying local, there’s the added benefit of keeping the money circulating in your local economy and not sending it to a corporate headquarters hundreds of miles away.

Many early microbreweries recognized that advantage from the beginning, and worked tirelessly to be good local citizens, and most I know of are still very active in their local communities, raising money for good causes, donating kegs for worthy events, giving their spent grain to local farmers to feed their livestock and partnering with other local businesses for the benefit of the places where they both live and work.

What Makes a Beer Local?

In 2012, it’s immensely satisfying that no one in America has to travel very far to find local beer. Several years ago, the Brewers Association crunched the numbers and determined that more than half of all Americans lived within 10 miles of a brewery. Since then, hundreds of breweries have opened (with literally hundreds more in various stages of planning) so that factoid is only getting closer. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s more like 75% live within 10 miles of a brewery now.

But as terrific as that is, there is an elephant sitting at the bar, wondering what it means to be a local beer. What exactly makes a beer local? The obvious answer, of course, is that it’s brewed right here. Brewpubs, which brew where they serve, are the most local you can get, from that point of view. And breweries that only deliver their beer in a local area likewise would have to be considered local.

But as many people are beginning to point out, some of the ingredients that go into beer come from all over the world. Beer is an agricultural product, and its two most well known ingredients — barley and hops — do not grow well everywhere. They need the right climate to flourish. Hops grow best in Washington and Oregon, and also in parts of England, Germany, the Czech Republic and even New Zealand. One of pilsner’s signature ingredients is Saaz (or Zatec) hops, which grow best in the area around the Czech Republic. You can grow them other places, but they take on different characteristics when you do that. Beer brewed with the same hop variety grown in different places will often taste slightly different.

And barley does grow in a lot of places, but most it for brewing comes from Europe, the Ukraine, Russia, Canada and Australia. If you want specialty malts, they’re mostly likely available only from where they’re created. Even if you grow your own barley, you have to go through the malting process, which is typically done by a maltster. And there’s not a malthouse in many places, either.

The point is, there are a lot of places where it’s simply not possible to get all the ingredients to brew beer locally, and that raises the specter about whether a beer brewed locally, but with ingredients flown in from around the world, still can be considered a local beer.

Because beer is mostly water, the majority of your bottle will always be almost entirely local, both by weight and by volume. The malt and hops and yeast constitute a very small portion of the finished beer. But as more and more people are taking seriously eating and drinking locally, it’s hard to ignore that arguably beer’s most important ingredients may not come from down the street.

Not that some breweries aren’t trying to address this. Thirsty Bear, in San Francisco, a little while back created a beer using all locally sourced ingredients, which they called Locavore Pale Ale. Likewise, the relatively new Almanac Beer Co. is creating all of their beers with mostly local ingredients, and working toward making that all. And Sierra Nevada releases annually their Estate Brewer’s Harvest Ale, which they make using both malt and hops grown on their own property in and around Chico.

In California, we are fortunate enough to have the right climate where both hops and barley can grow, even though the majority of it is grown elsewhere. But in many other states that traditionally haven’t grown these crops, brewers and farmers are trying to do just that, with an eye toward making their beers even more local.

But in some locations, there isn’t anything that can be done. Alaska isn’t going to start growing hops and barley anytime soon, but I’d have a hard time considering a beer brewed there not being a local beer. Regardless of whether or not 100% of the ingredients are local, it does still have local character. The water, the air, the industry, the people brewing it and selling it, the economy: those are all very local.

For me that’s enough. In the end, I personally don’t think it diminishes beer’s ability to be seen as local. While I believe this is a debate worth having, undoubtedly there will always be some purists who won’t be able to budge from a position that if all the ingredients aren’t local, then it can’t be considered local. If they choose not to drink those beers for that reason alone, that’s a shame. Because with beer, the most important thing is how good it tastes. If it’s all local, that’s just a bonus. Or as friend of mine once quipped, “If I can drink it, it’s local.”

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