Beers With a Pinch of Place

Acai Fruits. (Photo by Kate Evans for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR))

For as long as we’ve been pondering what ‘local’ means in terms of beer, we’ve also been interested in beers made with ingredients that evoke the place of their origin.

In the last year, oth­ers have crys­tallised that into a con­ver­sa­tion across var­i­ous blog posts and arti­cles, of which there have been a par­tic­u­lar flur­ry in recent weeks.

The idea that what is at hand – what grows in near­by fields or hedgerows – might shape the design of a beer is allur­ing and, frankly, rather obvi­ous to any­one who’s ever clapped eyes on, say, bright yel­low gorse flow­ers, or glossy rose­hips. Real­is­ing that our stash con­tained a few beers which make a virtue of con­tain­ing unusu­al place-spe­cif­ic ingre­di­ents, we decid­ed now was a good time to taste them, with a ques­tion in mind: does this approach cre­ate tasti­er or at least more inter­est­ing beers?

First, though, as it fits the theme, some­thing from an old note­book: our impres­sions of Lon­don brew­ery Pres­sure Drop’s Wu Gang Chops the Tree, a ‘for­aged herb hefeweisse’ at 3.8% ABV, which we drank back in July. Orange and rather flat, with a soapy, foamy head, we strug­gled to sum­mon the promised haze, even with some vig­or­ous shak­ing. The herbs – the head­line act – made us think of roast lamb (so prob­a­bly thyme and/or rose­mary?) but also, regret­tably, of Body Shop sham­poo. We fin­ished it, and cer­tain­ly found it inter­est­ing, but our final obser­va­tions were that it made us queasy, and that it was a bet­ter idea than it was a beer.

Back in the present day, ear­li­er this week, we tried two beers from Ama­zon Beer based in North­ern Brazil, both of which con­tain ingre­di­ents from the rain­for­est. Açaí Stout (7.2%) is made with Açaí berries – one of those prod­ucts that, in the UK, is most­ly sold as teas and sup­ple­ments in health food shops. As a stout, this is an unqual­i­fied suc­cess: rich and mouth-coat­ing with a deep choco­late flavour and a sup­port­ing cher­ry-black­cur­rant fruiti­ness, as if a few drops of Ribena had been added. If we detect­ed a con­tri­bu­tion from the Açaí, it was that, and per­haps a faint weird­ness which remind­ed us rooi­bos tea, or baobab smooth­ies at the Eden Project. In oth­er words, it tast­ed of some­thing for which our staid palates have no ref­er­ence. Is this beer a con­vinc­ing argu­ment for ‘beers from a place’? Not quite, as the Açaí feels like a ges­ture rather than a core part of the beer’s DNA, and there are plen­ty of stouts just as good being brewed in the UK.

For­est Bacuri (3.8%), from the same brew­ery, is less suc­cess­ful as a beer. Bacuri is, so we read, a fruit with a thick yel­low skin and white pulp which is both sweet and sour. To try to work out its con­tri­bu­tion to this beer, we first had to under­stand the base prod­uct, which seems to be a straight­for­ward Eng­lish-style gold­en ale, and a slight­ly tired, stale one at that. The Bacuri, then, is prob­a­bly the source of the elder­ber­ry, grape-like fruiti­ness, and the pow­er­ful aro­ma of red berries and… fen­nel, per­haps? Over­all, we found it hard going – sick­ly and lack­ing in bit­ter­ness, with­out the out­right pop-art enter­tain­ment val­ue of one of those sweet Bel­gian fruit beers. But per­haps this is our prej­u­dice in action – maybe if we’d grown up eat­ing Bacuri, we’d love this beer to bits.

Final­ly, we fin­ished with Williams Bros Kelpie (4.4%) which is made with sea­weed from the Argyll coast. Where we live, we get plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ty to smell sea­weed, and have, on occa­sion, har­vest­ed some to eat. We did­n’t detect any real evi­dence of it in this beer, or at least not that fishy-let­tuce qual­i­ty we were expect­ing. Instead, we found a brown ale with smok­i­ness so sub­tle we did­n’t agree between us that it was even there, a touch of milk choco­late, and then a lin­ger­ing, dry, chalky bit­ter­ness. Our final note: ‘Mild with straw­ber­ry juice and sol­u­ble Aspirin.’ Not dis­gust­ing, but not some­thing we’d be keen to drink again.

* * *

Where has all this left our think­ing on  ‘beers from a place’? We want it to mean more than sim­ply stan­dard styles with a token addi­tion of a local ingre­di­ent you can’t actu­al­ly detect in the flavour, and which is there, real­ly, only for the pur­pos­es of mar­ket­ing. We also sus­pect that, done right, it will pro­duce beers that, at least in the first instance, sim­ply won’t taste like beer, and that might take some effort to grow to enjoy.

If you’ve got sug­ges­tions for oth­er sim­i­lar beers we should try, let us know in the com­ments below.

Dis­clo­sure: we got the Pres­sure Drop beer as part of a sam­ple case from; the Ama­zon Beers were sent to us by the brew­ery along with sev­er­al oth­ers; and the Williams Bros beer came from their PR peo­ple ear­li­er this year.

Image: ‘Acai fruits’ by Kate Evans for Cen­ter for Inter­na­tion­al Forestry Research (CIFOR), from Flickr, under Cre­ative Com­mons.

6 thoughts on “Beers With a Pinch of Place”

  1. Adnams’ new Wild Hop beer, with hops gath­ered around Suf­folk. Got a bot­tle yes­ter­day, but yet to try it.

    Pres­sure Drop’s Strict­ly Roots, made with dandil­ion and bur­dock for­aged on Hack­ney Marsh­es. I think. It’s much bet­ter than Wu Gang.

  2. I think local­ly sourced ingre­di­ents work if those ingre­di­ents actu­al­ly speak to the location—and they make sense in the beer. Throw­ing some­thing in just because it’s local does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that the end prod­uct will be good. I asked the same ques­tion a few months back and Stan Hierony­mous, men­tioned Alaskan Brew­ing Com­pa­ny’s smoked porter in the com­ments. That beer strikes a chord with the locals because the alder wood used to smoke the malt is the same kind of wood that has been used to smoke fish for gen­er­a­tions. The beer isn’t fishy at all, but still has rem­i­nis­cent fla­vor that most peo­ple around Juneau rec­og­nize. That being said, it’s also works out­side Alas­ka. It’s one of the brew­ery’s most pop­u­lar beer, and has medaled a bunch of times at the GABF.

  3. There’s a fair few beers which add elder­flower, although I can’t say I’m a big fan – Dark Star Hylder Blond is a month­ly spe­cial which is avail­able over the sum­mer.

    I think I should prob­a­bly be point­ing you more in the direc­tion of Burn­ing Sky’s Saisons, which fea­ture rose­hips, hawthorns and the like.

  4. Keep an eye on Amoy Brau of Xia­men, Chi­na. Not sure if they are export­ing yet but their sig­na­ture wit­beer includes a local fruit and is rather nice. I might have men­tioned it on these pages before, sor­ry.

  5. Great arti­cle, there seems to be a push recent­ly for style over sub­stance. We agree with prov­i­dence in prod­ucts but not at the expense of pro­duc­ing beers and oth­er drinks with actu­al flavours that make the sum greater than its parts.

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