LONG READ: A Taste of Place

Des de Moor, a brilliant author and all-round Good Guy, asks if local beers actually taste of the place where they're brewed? And finds some surprising examples of a new localism in British beer

With more than 1,500 breweries in the UK, more and more of us live within walking distance of one. But how many of our local beers actually taste of the place where they're brewed?

Wine experts talk about terroir and how the physical environment where the grapes were grown, and sometimes the social environment too, is expressed in the taste of the finished product. But beer is made from dry ingredients which are more easily stored and transported, and most beers are made a long way away from where the grains and hops are grown.

For much of brewing's history, brewers worked with raw materials grown within

LONG READ: A Taste of Place

Des de Moor, a brilliant author and all-round Good Guy, asks if local beers actually taste of the place where they're brewed? And finds some surprising examples of a new localism in British beer

With more than 1,500 breweries in the UK, more and more of us live within walking distance of one. But how many of our local beers actually taste of the place where they're brewed?

Wine experts talk about terroir and how the physical environment where the grapes were grown, and sometimes the social environment too, is expressed in the taste of the finished product. But beer is made from dry ingredients which are more easily stored and transported, and most beers are made a long way away from where the grains and hops are grown.

For much of brewing's history, brewers worked with raw materials grown within a carthorse ride from home. Together with other local factors like the climate, laws and customs, the availability of ingredients contributed to the evolution of classic, traditional beer styles.

That all changed following the Industrial Revolution. The big brewers that emerged in the USA at the end of the 19th century developed standardised beers that could be brewed anywhere with no discernible change of flavour. These were sent across the continent in refrigerated rail wagons, all but obliterating more local competition. Thankfully, quirky regional beer styles survived in Europe long enough to inspire today's generation of craft brewers.

Improvements in transport and technology mean that for craft brewers, too, the world has become a global village. Brewers on every continent have access to the same grains, hops, yeasts and brewing methods. And while I'm rightly grateful for the unprecedented variety that results, I do wonder what we mean by 'local beer' in an age when the brewer round the corner uses hops shipped from halfway across the world.

More and more, though, brewers are finding ways to embrace the advantage of modern brewing while still creating beers with a local accent. The UK grows some of the world's best malting barley, so it's not surprising that home-grown malt provides the backbone to even the most exotically-styled British beers. Several East Anglian brewers ñ including adventurous small batch specialist Poppyland can trace their grain precisely to a particular farm, Branthill Farm at Wells-next-the-Sea.

Wiper and True in Bristol is not only perpetuating a popular local style with its Milk Shake milk stout, but makes a point of sourcing its malt from Warminster Maltings nearby. And its use of English hops marks a welcome return to the practice of finding at least some of this vital ingredient without crossing an ocean.

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While New World hop varieties, with their intense citrus, pine and tropical fruit character, have rewritten the rulebook of beer flavour, English and other European hops still have much to offer, especially with new and more intense varieties on the way. Expect to see more UK brewers exploring their flavours, not just for localism but to avoid the difficulty of securing supplies of US and Australasian hops at reasonable prices.

Other ingredients can contribute a local signature too. One of the most renowned beers from Ilkley Brewery, in the Yorkshire town of the same name, is Siberia, a seasonal rhubarb saison developed with beer writer Melissa Cole. It's an unashamedly contemporary brew, but it references both the tradition of Belgian farmhouse brewing where saisons originated, and the nearby territory of the 'rhubarb triangle' where some of Britain's best forced rhubarb is grown.

Such additional flavourings become even more important where the climate doesn't favour hops. One of the most influential contemporary UK beers, Williams Brothers' Froach, revived the Scottish tradition of flavouring beer with local heather back in 1988. It's helped inspire brewers worldwide to explore the potential of local herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables.

In Denmark, a brewery network known as New Nordic Beer is actively researching indigenous ingredients yielding specifically Scandinavian flavours. So many US brewers are taking a similar approach that there's now even a book about brewing with American ingredients Brewing Local, by influential beer writer and brewing consultant Stan Hieronymous, published in August.

"Brewers are finding ways to embrace modern brewing but with a local accent"

Once, every brewery kept its own yeast culture, which evolved through the generations, giving a unique signature to the beer. Today, while some traditional breweries, such as Fuller's and Timothy Taylor, have their own cultures, most microbrewers buy in yeast as needed from commercial labs.

Thornbridge is one contemporary brewery that bucks that trend. It maintains two cultures, a Californian yeast for most of the keg and bottled beers and a Yorkshire ale yeast for the cask. Head brewer Rob Lovatt told me the cask beers tasted 'one-dimensional' until the Yorkshire yeast was brought in, and it's since evolved further to suit Rob's brewing methods.

The ultimate expression of yeasty terroir is spontaneously fermented beer, which relies on wild yeasts and bacteria living in and around the brewery. It was once thought such beers could only be brewed successfully in the Senne valley near Brussels, where they're known as 'lambics' (Lindemans Cuvee Rene Oude Gueuze is a good example).

But as the legendary Jean Van Roy, from lambic brewery Cantillon, once said, 'You can spontaneously ferment anywhere and you might just have to come up with your own method'. More and more brewers are doing just that, including Suffolk family brewery Elgood's which has been brewing its fascinating Coolship range for several years now.

An alternative to exposing your beer to the air and hoping for the best is to cultivate local wild yeasts before adding to the beer. This is what they do at one of the most accomplished experimental UK breweries, Wild Beer Co in Somerset, to make fabulous beers like Ninkasi and Wild Goose Chase. Some of the yeasts used here were found on the skins of local cider apples.

 All this is good news for drinkers looking for unique and distinctive flavours. The movement that brought us today's huge diversity happened because discerning consumers rejected the homogeneity and blandness of beers that could be brewed anywhere. Let's keep that diversity, not only by drinking local but by seeking out beers that taste local too.

 Des de Moor is the author of The CAMRA Guide to London’s Best Beer, Pubs and Bars. As well as writing about beer and pubs for numerous publications, he regularly hosts tutored tastings, leads brewery and pub walks and tours and judges in international beer competitions. He is also an accredited Beer Sommelier. Read more at desdemoor.co.uk.