Hops, barley, rye, wheat, heirloom grains, fruits and even yeast all have characteristics that change with variety, as well as with where they were grown. This “terroir” allows a brewer to create distinctive local or region-specific beers.
Growing beer ingredients locally provides farmers, maltsters and brewers the opportunity to work with unique crop varieties, well adapted to specific growing conditions, upon which to build the craft beverage industry.
“It’s a pretty exciting time to see a lot of these ingredients become local products,” Rich Michaels, of Saranac Brewery, in Utica, NY said.
Saranac Brewery is a family company, and has been brewing beer in New York since 1888, when hops were grown and purchased locally. Today, the company features heirloom hops, grown locally by Wrobel Farms, in some of their products. They’ve also used locally grown wheat, and plan on adding local rye in 2016, for use in select beers.
The key to local ingredients isn’t only in where they grow. It’s in the ability to pick them for peak aroma or flavor. In the case of local hops, peak aroma occurs a few days after they visibly are past peak, and starting to dry in the field, Michaels said. Saranac Brewery’s experience with local hops has cast no doubt as to the quality of the hops being grown locally, which is comparative to commercial varieties, although the oil content tends to be lower.
The capacity to dry hops properly is lacking in the local supply chain, however, and it’s after harvest when some quality issues arise, Michaels explained. Harvesting and handling practices can change the hop’s performance. Maintaining proper moisture and temperature levels for drying, and then pelletizing and packaging the delicate hops crop correctly, are imperative to retain flavor and performance.
Another product – water – has an impact on every ingredient in the brewing process, Michaels said. The water affects the flavor, aroma, haze, malt characteristics and enzymatic activity of beer. Brewing depends on chemical reactions, and without the proper pH, those won’t happen.
Yeast, too, plays an important role. Certain yeast pairs better with certain varieties of hops. The yeast has a “huge impact” on hops aroma, and the beer’s properties, he said.
It’s no surprise to Dr. Mary Allen, PhD. Professor of Biology, Hartwick College that local hops provide brewers with a unique flavor profile. Allen has been researching the microbiome of hops. Through DNA sequencing of local hops, Allen has been able to determine that the microbiomes associated with the leaves and cones of hops plants is not the same as the soil microbiome in which the plants are grown.
The microbiome “describes all the microbes that colonize a particular place,” Allen said.
Microbes can influence plants to produce compounds; so unique microbiomes can impart characteristics to a given crop, and to a beer made with that crop. So far, the leaves of the hops tested have shown a dominant group of microbes. Of these, over one-half of the population are pseudomonas spp., which produce compounds offering plants protection.
The next step in her research is to determine if and how the microbes play a role in the “terroir” of the crop. It’s not known what about the environment is important in impacting flavor of crops. Being able to analyze the specific microbiome associated with a crop is one step towards attempting to correlate this with flavor.
Dustin Herb, of Oregon State University, is researching barley flavor. According to Herb, there are differences in flavor between heritage and commercial barley varieties. But all of the factors driving these differences aren’t yet known. OSU researchers conducted tests on three varieties of barley, one of which was an heirloom, grown in Oregon. The barley was all grown in strips at the same farm, malted identically at the same place, and brewed into beer at two breweries. By controlling for environmental, management, malting and brewing technique impact, researchers were hoping to see if variety itself led to flavor profile differences.
Next, they grew the same varieties in three different locations, keeping everything else the same, in an effort to determine the impact of terroir on barley flavor. Both sensory and analytic data found flavor profile differences between the same barley grown in different locations.
Flavor comes from chemical compounds. OSU research on barley flavor found toffee, malt, fruity and floral flavors were predominant, and found that closely related barley varieties share the same flavor profiles. The varieties themselves had characteristics such as fruity or woodsy, which distinguished them from the other barleys. But the same variety, grown in a different location, had altered flavor characteristics, too.
Using parent cultivars of Golden Promise and Full Pint, barley breeders selected 37 offspring, which were then grown along with the parents in three locations. They made random selections from each field, and used chromatography to analyze chemical compounds in each plant.
“For a breeder, we are seeing genetic segregation for these compounds,” Herb said, with offspring clustering around the parent strains for most compounds. But the environment of the offspring did have some impact on the specific characteristics of their flavor compounds, he said.
“Flavor differences were present,” between varieties, and “something in the environment is changing the flavor,” of any given variety, Herb said. Further research will help “identify more unique flavors within different genetic backgrounds.”
The genotype of a plant impacts its flavor. The environment in which the plant is grown does, too. The specific microbiome of the plant itself – not only of the soil in which it is grown – might play a role. Perhaps the way the crop is managed – under organic or conventional production practices – may also be a factor in flavor. The protein content of the grain may impact flavor, too.
The use of locally grown ingredients in beer does more than boost the local economy. It provides brewers with the opportunity to craft beverages that stand out from the crowd, tell the story of the local land, and promote regional characteristics all too often lost in today’s mass-marketed products. As researchers learn more about how flavor profiles develop, breeders can develop varieties, which have specific profiles, adapt them to growing regions, and potentially allow growers to quantify how their soils and management practices impart unique characteristics to that grain.
Future research on microbiomes and their specific impact on grain flavor profile has real potential, Herb said.
Brewers could then tell customers “what their beer’s preliminary characteristics are,” and open up a vast new world of beer flavor by using locally-grown ingredients which can allow them to distinguish their beers from all others.
This article was compiled from presentations given at the “Maltster in the Rye” Farmer/Brewer conference held at Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY.