Our activities to raise the profile of food and beer matching have attracted some interesting responses. I am pleased with the way it has gone in general, but there are some underlying issues to resolve. In particular, the question of beer and its "sense of place", as Tim Atkin likes to call it, is a nagging point.
Fine wine is almost exclusively made from grapes grown in a single vineyard, crushed, fermented, matured and possibly even bottles by the same artisan organisation within a particular village. That, we are told, makes fine wine better for food matching than beer ever can.
The best bottle of wine I ever consumed was on my 40th birthday, in a 3 rosette restaurant, in which, a few weeks later, the Queen dined. The wine was really was very good, but at around £45 for 750ml I'm unsure if I could claim it was better than some of the very best beer I have ever drunk. I can think of a few grand beers, of equal complexity and of better value for money than that wine example. Furthermore, I strongly suspect that the wine in question would be much more now; I've tried to buy it since and failed to do so for any less than around £60 a bottle, even at wholesale prices.
Despite knowing that some exceptional quality beers can equal fine wine, how do we counter the accusation that beer has no "sense of place", no terroir? Furthermore, I decided to enter into my "campaign" by citing the fact that British Beer is an indigenous product of our country and that aspect has been undermined a little by various people, not incorrectly of course, pointing out that some of the very best beers do in fact use imported hops. Chris King writes a constructive appraisal of where we are which brings up that question, and is one of a number of articles I need to address before moving forward.
So, what does this treasured terroir mean? Is it really that valuable? How does it make wine better than beer and able to command ridiculous prices? Can beer ever compete?
Let's look first at the meaning of the word:Of course, if we directly try to parallel wine terroir to beer we will fail. The bulk ingredient in beer is water. Many will try to argue that you can tell the difference when a brewery changes its water supply, and I've tried to do so myself in the past. Wine, of course, is entirely grape juice and so all the water in wine has come through the soil and into the vine before being squeezed out of the grape. In beer the science behind liquor treatment almost entirely blows away the idea that water necessarily has to influence the beer production.
the combination of factors, including soil, climate, and environment, that gives a wine its distinctive character.
A " terroir " is a group of vineyards (or even vines) from the same region, belonging to a specific appellation, and sharing the same type of soil, weather conditions, grapes and wine making savoir-faire, which contribute to give its specific personality to the wine.
The grain is the next bulk ingredient. For a product like a good barley wine the bulk weight input might very well equal the mass of the finished product. Barley, and most of the other grist ingredients, are grown in the UK. They are then normally by a handful of fine and experienced malsters, also in the UK.
Hops, which are an ingredient that arguably most effects the flavour and aroma of some of the very best beers may very well not be grown in this country. Indeed, although I accept this is a matter of opinion and a controversial point, the finest beers are made with heavy doses of New World hops. However, I do not believe this undermines my point that beer is an indigenous UK product.
To counter the accusation of hops being imported it is important to note that the hops represent less than 1% by weight of the finished product. Value wise it is a little more complicated, and seasonally variable, but generally less than 1% of the price you pay for your beer actually contributes to a none UK economy. Hops are a low mass product, shipped by sea and of relatively low value compared to the overall value of the beer.
It is true that the flavour of hops is significantly effected by the climate of area the hops are grown. This does truly inhibit our ability to focus on one single terroir for beer, but in reality many brewers are highlighting the New World influence on beer making the drink much less stuffy and aloof than the pretentious wine parallel. Beer is a product that crosses many boundaries including national frontiers - I think that makes it better than wine. For that reason it can also be argued that beer is a better match for world cuisine. Beer is a much better beverage for the modern, all-embracing, cosmopolitan and democratic people.
Human controlled elements
The definition of terroir can be expanded to include elements that are controlled or influenced by human decisions. This can include the decision of which grape variety to plant, though whether or not that grape variety will produce quality wine is an innate element of terroir that may be beyond human influence. Some grape varieties thrive better in certain areas than they do in others. The winemaking decision of using wild or ambient yeast in fermentation instead of cultured or laboratory produced yeast can be a reflection of terroir. The use of oak is a controversial element since some will advocate that its use is beneficial in bringing out the natural terroir characteristics while others will argue that its use can mask the influences of the terroir.
Yeast, of course, has a significant effect on beer. I've recently been trying a few beers crafted by long-standing brewers that I have previously overlooked. There is a quite distinctive flavour that is created by some brewers as a result of careful selection of ingredients but more specifically the cultivation of yeast.
Where beer comes into its own is the human influence, selection of ingredients, cultivation of yeast and a panache for creating complexity, depth of flavour and aroma. Dexterous monitoring and control of the whole process from mash, boil, through fermentation and maturation is critical to a top class beer that has a house feel all of its own. It may very well not be important where the beer is made, and a "sense of place" more vague, but beer from a particular brewery has character and personality very special and often only surpassed by the personalities of the brewers.
The summer recess for Saturday Kitchen provides a useful time of reflection for our campaign to raise the awareness of food and beer matching. A post to follow concerns the fact that food and beer matching, when done well, would necessarily have to include beers from various countries, further undermining my "beer is the indigenous British drink" angle - this point needs to be addressed for the continuation of the "movement"