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The brewers behind Niambic beer sample the goods. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The brewers behind Niambic beer sample the goods. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Maritime malt and eggy whiffs: What exactly does beer terroir mean? Add to ...

New Brunswick’s barley is said to have “wet feet” because of the East Coast’s rainy days, unlike the dry, cracking Prairie soil where most Canadian malt is grown. And so when brewmaster Liam McKenna created his Yellowbelly Pale Ale using only “Maritime malt,” he says he could taste the difference.

“Maritime malt has more proteins than a Prairie malt so you get these nutty, strawberry flavours in the beer,” says McKenna, brewmaster at Yellowbelly Brewery and Public House in St. John’s.

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As Canada’s microbrewery industry matures, more brewers are demanding local ingredients to give their beer a unique flavour, or – dare I say it – terroir.

But try talking about beer and terroir without brewing up a storm of confusion and controversy. Terroir means different things to different people. “You can’t call that beer part of my terroir,” says McKenna, “because the malt was grown in New Brunswick – that’s not my region.”

The rise of the local food movement in North America means experts are redefining terroir.

“Historically, we’ve always looked to our surrounding regions for inspiration for what we eat and drink,” says Dr. Amy Trubek an anthropologist at the University of Vermont and author of The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. “But our commodity-based food system allows us to pick and choose what we eat based on desire, without paying attention to our relationship to the natural world.” Terroir, says Trubek, restores that critical link.

Before globalization of the beer market, beer had a distinct terroir: It was rooted in the water.

“Some of the great beers in the world were developed on the basis of the local water,” says Dr. Charlie Bamforth, who teaches brewing science at the University of California, Davis.

The gypsum-rich soil of England’s Burton-on-Trent shaped the English Pale Ale because the extremely hard water made a bold-tasting brew with a distinctly “eggy whiff” and a dry finish, says Bamforth. On the other end of the taste spectrum, the Czech town of Plzen’s very soft water is the basis for the round, understated pilsner, made famous by Pilsner Urquell.

“The brutal reality today is that you can adjust the water to anything you want,” says Bamforth, “so you can make the same product in different places around the globe, and it will be an exact match to the original recipe.”

But while most breweries, big and small, doctor their water – there are still many that leave their local source untouched, and the breweries claim its unique composition drives flavour.

Toronto’s Steam Whistle pilsner is made with hard, spring water drawn from a well near Caledon, Ont. For a glimpse of terroir, try it alongside Pilsner Urquell. Steam Whistle’s has a lighter, more bubbly feel than the soft, creamy Urquell, a more pointed hop finish and a slight “eggy whiff.”

“Hard water tends to bring out stronger hop profiles,” says Becky Julseth, co-owner of Salt Spring Island Ales in British Columbia, which draws spring water from the island. “Having soft water allows us to use hops more liberally, for a softer-tasting beer with deep, but not overwhelmingly bitter hop flavour,” says Julseth.

And then there are the other three ingredients that go into beer: malt, hops and yeast.

Unlike most in the industry, Brett Joyce, president of Rogue Ales, thinks it’s the malt and hops that give a beer its unique imprint.

“For me, terroir means the crops that you grow will give your beer a unique taste of place,” he says.

Like most other craft breweries, Rogue’s regular lineup of beer is made with hops and malts imported from all over the world. But for its special “Chatoe” (a tongue-in-cheek butchering of chateau) line, the brewery grows its own hops, barley and fruit in the Willamette Valley, about a 90-minute drive from Rogue’s brewery in Independence, Oregon. As far as Joyce is concerned, only his Chatoe series exhibits terroir. “There’s such a mix of ingredients in our other beers that it’d be hard to put your finger on a distinctive terroir,” he says.

Farming your own ingredients is a laborious, expensive pursuit, and Joyce admits it’s not a stream of his business that makes much money. The bottom line? Grow-your-own makes a great story, but it’s not a realistic business plan for most breweries.

Perhaps the truest imprint of terroir on an ale lies in wilder territory.

Lambic beers can only be labelled as such if they are made in the Senne Valley near Brussels. This medieval style takes a hyper-concentrated wort (the liquid extracted from the mashing process) and leaves it to cool in open vessels in an old brewery. Vents in the walls invite wild yeasts from outside, along with natural bacteria from inside the farmhouse (which is never cleaned, allowing the brewery’s own “house style” of natural bacteria to thrive), to invade the sugary wort and kick-start years of fermentation.

The result is a truly funked-out, puckeringly sour beer. With notes of horse blanket, goat and a long, dry finish, these are some of the most complex beers in the world.

A few weeks ago, Iain McOustra, a brewer at Amsterdam Brewery in Toronto, rounded up three other local brewers to make a “Niambic.” The four men drove their wort out to the Good Earth Winery in Beamsville, Ont., which is surrounded by fruit orchards, and left it outside in “coolships” (shallow, open boxes) for 16 hours. That batch is fermenting away in four unwashed wine barrels from another Niagara winery.

The plan is to brew a new batch annually until the fourth year when, true to style, the four brewers will taste and blend them into Canada’s first lambic-style(ish) brew.

Memorable brews

Find le goût de terroir in these beers

Corps Mort

Located on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine, remote islands in the gulf of St. Lawrence, (a five-hour ferry ride from Prince Edward Island), Quebec microbrewery À l’Abri de la Tempête makes beers with a taste of the Gulf. Each spring, brewers cure malt for this barley wine in the same smokehouse that serves the local herring catch, lending this 11 per cent caramel-forward barley wine a smoky, salty flavour with the distinctly herring finish. Whoa. $6.00/341 ml at the brewery and at dépanneurs throughout Quebec.

Salt Spring Island estate-hopped Whale Tail Ale

Fresh, whole, Cascade hops were picked from the brewery’s farm and chucked into this caramely, biscuity spring-water ale lending it a zingy, grapefruit nose. $6.85/650 ml in stores and on tap in Victoria, Saanich & Salt Spring Island.

3 Fields Harvest Ale

Garrison Brewing created this ale with 100-per-cent Maritime malt and seven varieties of fresh, whole hops from four Nova Scotian farms, which lend bright mango and lychee flavour. $5.49/500 ml, for sale at Garrison Brewery.

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