The Terroir of Beer?

Much like grapes, there are many hop varieties grown around the world. Brewer Charlotte Cook says we're only beginning to understand how place affects beer.

By Charlotte Cook

London-based Charlotte Cook is head brewer at Coalition Brewery. Previously, she was named among the top female brewers in the UK by Drinks Business and over the past decade has worked at BrewDog in Scotland, Pohjala in Estonia, Cloudwater in Manchester, and Truman’s in London, where she was the first female head brewer in over 400 years. She is a vocal supporter of increasing diversity in the brewing industry and beyond.

Beer is quite often maligned as a less sophisticated cousin to other beverages, the booze from the wrong side of the tracks, an informal drink to wash down a burger with, not to accompany nouvelle cuisine. Luckily, this misperception is changing, with higher-end restaurants, bar, and hotels starting to give beer a more prominent place on their menu, rather than as an afterthought to keep the dads happy. I now work for a brewery specializing in developing beers for chefs to complement their cuisine and have created beers for Yotam Ottolenghi as well as Michelin-starred chefs in London.

As a brewer, this is obviously an incredibly welcome shift in the status-quo. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities in beer, and a flexibility, playfulness, and diversity that often isn’t fully understood or explored. You can create a 2.8 percent sour Berlinerwiesse flavored with cloudberries and rhubarb, and equally you can make a 15 percent imperial stout with tonka beans and coffee, and it all still falls under the banner of “beer.” I recently made a beer flavored with preserved lemon as well as a beer where 50 percent of the sugar came from raw potato. This was then inoculated with wild yeast and fermented in a former whisky cask.

You really can’t blame people for thinking that beer is homogenous. For a long time the only beer easily available to a wide swath of the population was macro lager. This is beer produced with rice and hop extracts, and served so cold that any nuance that might have been there is obliterated into nothingness. What’s available these days from passionate craft breweries are a million miles from the “industrial piss” of old.

Yet now that the market has changed, people still aren’t fully aware of the complexity of beer, and how much the raw materials matter. I have recently finished my master’s degree in brewing, and my thesis concentrated on the sustainability and use of hops. Hops are incredibly expensive, costing up to $60 per kilogram, but the use of them in breweries is often inefficient, leading to a significantly diminished return on investment—the literal pouring of money down the drain. Most breweries add hops at a rate of up to 45 grams per liter of beer, yet research has shown that any more than 8 grams per liter provides a diminished return.

One factor that hasn’t yet been investigated with much detail is the influence of terroir on beer. We know that the barley harvest, while it differs depending on weather, by and large has a minimal sensory effect on the final product. Hops, on the other hand, will differ vastly from year to year, as well a region to region, with a noticeable taste difference.

Much like grapes, there are many hop varieties, and these varieties can impart flavors as diverse as clementine, strawberry, fenugreek, rose petal, or pine resin. British hops are usually considered to be earthy and spicy, perfect for traditional styles. Hops from the Yakima Valley in Washington State are often described as adding notes of tropical fruit, even coconut and pineapple, as well as resinous citrus. The choice of hops for each beer will have a huge impact on the final product, and a bad batch of hops can completely change the flavor of even an established brand.

Much of this has to do with the innate chemistry in the plant, which will differ depending on sunshine, precipitation, soil conditions and harvest date. All of this combined means that hops will be vastly different from harvest to harvest, and even between rows in the same farm. We’re already seeing impact of climate change on the hop industries of the Pacific Northwest, which seems to be bearing the brunt of more extreme weather events, such as wildfires.

Traditionally, certain hop varieties have been grown mainly in the areas they were developed in: Fuggles grown in England; Saaz in the Czech Republic; newer varieties like Cascade or Simcoe in the USA. The soil, weather, and agronomy in each of these areas influences the flavor development in the hops, and so it has long been thought that varieties will not thrive outside of their native space. American varieties grown in Europe, for instance, have often failed to sell.

Recent research has looked at the sensory differences between beers produced with the same varieties of hops that are grown in distinctly different areas. Researchers in Belgium found that there is a significant sensory difference between hops of the same variety grown in Germany, the UK, and the USA—scientifically confirming the existence of terroir in hops.

This is interesting for brewers, as it means that we can adjust the flavor profile of beers whilst using genetically identical hops, yet still end up with vastly different beers. This opens up a whole new world of flavor possibilities. Brewers love to innovate, play with flavor and manipulate their raw materials to create something delicious. Unlike with wine, the payoff on innovation in beer has a much shorter time cycle. You can often find out if your experiment has gone to plan within a few days, and just start again if it’s not up to scratch.

I also hope that this will encourage brewers to use more local ingredients. Brewers around the world, but especially in Europe, have looked at New World hops as somewhat superior to European varieties, much like Brits love American TV and food, because it has a sheen of glitter that things closer to home often lack. American varieties can be grown in Europe, and we have the space and infrastructure to process them and get them to the consumer much faster than imported varieties. (Plus, the wildfires in Oregon aren’t going to get better if we’re regularly air-freighting tons of hops from Oregon to the UK).

Consumers are willing to pay for products made with the environment in mind, so I hope that this introductory research on hops and terroir can be built upon to shift the collective consciousness to accept that locally grown hops can be as fun and sexy as their American counterparts. Until then I guess I’ll toast you with a New England IPA, brewed in Denmark, with hops from Washington State.

The research on terroir and hops is super new—so new that there aren’t many beers I can recommend for you to seek out these disparities for yourself. Though if you want to experience some sensory differences with hops, I’d recommend you try some of these beers and see for yourself how much of a difference hop varieties can make.

Off Color Brewing Waddle Oktoberfest Lager

This beer uses a traditional German Hersbrucker hops, that provides a delicate rose and spice aroma. Off Color always brings an interesting twist to their beers, but with solid brewing technique.

Drop-In Brewing A Good Honest Pint

Brewed in Vermont by a real-life Englishman, the beers from this incredible brewery are a million miles away from what people may usually associate with New England beers. The hop used in this bitter is East Kent Goldings, as quintessentially English as the boarding-school repression of emotions, they provide an incredible earthy note alongside fresh grassy aromas.

Tarantula Hill IPA

Tarantula Hill, the brainchild of a former Stone brewer, produces solid beer in the heart of San Diego. Their Tarantula Hill IPA uses hops from the Pacific Northwest, namely Mosaic, Amarillo and Simcoe. Combined, these hops provide wonderful tropical fruit aromas, with mango, pineapple and clementine all spilling from the glass.