It's about the beer
Gina Miller and Bill Keeper
Hey Bill, remember the slogan "Think Globally, Drink Locally" that was bandied about in the
early days of the craft beer movement? But it's no surprise that early craft brewing placed an
emphasis on drinking "local," since for most of beer's history, that's the only way you could get
it. Historically, beer didn't travel very well -- or very far. That's why there were more than 4,000
breweries in the United States alone in the 1870s. Every town had at least one brewery to
slake the thirst of its residents and when you went to the nearest big city, you could drink
perhaps dozens of different beers from their local breweries.
Buying local has the added benefit of keeping the money circulating in your local economy and
not sending it to a corporate headquarters hundreds of miles away. Even better, small craft
breweries worked tirelessly to be good local citizens doing things like donating kegs for worthy
events, giving their spent grain to local farmers to feed their livestock and partnering with other
local businesses to benefit their communities.
I know you agree Bill that it's immensely satisfying that no one in America has to travel very far
to find local beer. Statistics show that more than half of all Americans lived within 10 miles of a
brewery. Terrific as that is, there is an obvious elephant sitting at the bar -- and he's asking,
"What makes a beer local?"
I can hear you thinking, so finally she gets to the point. Yes, what bothering me is wondering
what really makes a beer local? The obvious answer, of course, is that local beer is brewed
right here. From that perspective, brewpubs are as local as you can get. But some of the
ingredients that go into beer come from all over the world. Their hops are likely from
Washington and Oregon, maybe England, Germany, the Czech Republic, or even New
Zealand. Sure you might be able to grow Saaz hops in your backyard but they take on
different characteristics when you do that.
Barley grows well in many places, but most of the barley used for brewing comes from Europe,
Ukraine, Russia, Canada and Australia. And even if you grow your own barley, you have to go
through the malting process, which is typically done by a maltster -- and malthouses are not
exactly common. The point is, there are a lot of places where it's simply not possible to brew
with exclusively local ingredients. If a beer is brewed locally, but with ingredients flown in from
around the world, can it still be considered a local beer?
In a word my answer is - no.
That's it from me, chug-a-lug, Bill.....see you next month.
Gina, you sound like you need a beer! Relax and listen. As you know malt, hops and yeast
constitute a very small portion of the finished beer; beer is mostly water. Therefore, the majority
of your bottle always will be local. Having said that I have to admit it's hard to ignore that your
point that beer's most important ingredients may not come from down the street.
Well, let me tell you that others agree with you including some breweries who are seriously trying
address this issue. San Francisco's Thirsty Bear created a beer a few years ago using only
locally sourced ingredients. Almanac Beer Co is well known for creating all its beers with
Northern California ingredients and Sierra Nevada's Estate Brewer's Harvest Ale is made using
both malt and hops grown on its property in and around Chico.
I admit I got that info from my cousin Mary who lives in California. She reminded me that they
have the right climate to effectively and efficiently grow both hops and barley in abundance. But
a little research showed me that in other states, where these crops traditionally have not been
grown, brewers and farmers are trying to do just that, with an eye toward making their beers even
more local. Of course, Alaska isn't going to start growing hops and barley anytime soon, but I'd
have a hard time considering a beer brewed there as somehow not "local" to that town.
For me, that's enough. While I believe this is a debate worth having, undoubtedly there will
always be purists like you who won't budge from the "everything must be local" position. But if
they choose not to drink those beers for that reason alone, that's a shame. Because with beer,
the most important thing is how good it tastes. If it's all local, that's just a bonus.
Or, as a friend of mine ( I think her name was Gina) once quipped a long time ago, "If I can
drink it, it's local."
Here's looking at you, kid! See you next month.