The story below is from our July/August 2015 issue. For the full story download our FREE iOS app or view our digital edition for FREE today!
Long ago, when beer was of necessity a local product, the character of the suds was deeply influenced by the ingredients found near the brewery. In a happy trend amid the craft brewing craze, that phenomenon is returning.
Say the word “terroir” and your pinkie may lift reflexively. If you’re holding a wine glass, no one will notice – but if you’re holding a beer, well, you’d best get control of that little finger.
“Terroir” is typically associated with wine, recognizing that climate and soil affect the grapes and thus the wine. Brewers, however, are embracing the concept, too. Their reasons for doing so extend beyond mere taste.
“Years ago I was introduced to the sustainability concept for food and I’m interested in doing that with beer too,” says Sterling White of Callaway Brewing in Callaway.
Sustainability emphasizes the use of local products, avoiding the resources burned by long-range transportation, supporting local economies and drawing upon regional pride. Though local focus is a newer concept, it’s also a return to the past. Historic beer styles developed regionally based on ingredient availability and culture. In the development of some traditional styles, including Pilsner, Dortmunder and IPAs from Burton-on-Trent, even the water played an important part.
So, too, in western Virginia. Water chemistry affects brewing, though contemporary brewers can treat the water.
“We live within sight of the Eastern Continental Divide, at the headwaters,” Sterling White says, “so the water is very clean. I have a lot of good metals and minerals…, no off flavors or iron. [For most beer styles], the water is good right out of the well.”
Of course, brewers also need barley, hops and yeast, plus occasional flavor adjuncts like berries, honey and herbs. As with grapes, soil and climate can affect these crops. Among Virginia’s top 20 commodities, however, barley is number 20. Hops don’t even make the list. So far.
“There’s a lot of discussion [about local ingredients],” says Mark Shrader of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild and Bull and Bones Brewhouse and Grill in Blacksburg. “A lot of small breweries are going to have the ability to use a lot more locally sourced material,” he adds.
“As demand increases for local ingredients, some of Virginia’s brightest minds are working to better crops used in local craft beer,” Virginia Secretary of Agriculture & Forestry Todd Haymore says, citing Virginia Tech scientists and forward-thinking growers.
At Callaway Brewing, Sterling White has planted hops and encouraged others to do so. He’s been in touch with a wheat grower who will plant grains for brewing and with Big Spring Mill in Elliston for milling. His White’s Wheat beer was brewed with Franklin County grain, and he plans to use local hops in Eastern Divide pale ale.
Bryan Summerson at Big Lick Brewing in Roanoke similarly values the use of local ingredients. He plans to use his own homegrown hops this year and possibly to work with Whipple Creek hop farm north of Roanoke.
“Our coffee porter was made using CUPS Coffee and Tea’s coffee,” he says. “We are still trying to find a local source of pawpaws” for Paw Paw What?
Summerson has also used Virginia yeast from RVA Yeast Lab. Yes, even yeast can be locally grown.
Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers in Roanoke used fresh local blackberries in their seasonal Berry White and local banana peppers and apples for infusing added flavors.
“In the future, we hope to use local hops, malts and other fruits or spices,” brewer Sean Osborne says.
The ultimate local beer will be Let Freedom Ring from Chaos Mountain in Callaway, a pale ale scheduled for release on the Fourth of July: Virginia grains malted in-state, Virginia hops, and RVA Yeast Lab yeast, brewed in Chaos Mountain well water.
The brewing of beers using local ingredients is a growing trend, one worthy of a rise from your pinkie.