Vail’s Ale with Altitude column: Brewing beer is about location, location, location
Ryan Summerlin March 12, 2013
Wine people talk a lot about terroir: the soil, the geology and the microclimate that influence a particular wine’s taste. That’s an old concept in brewing. At one time all beers were local and styles developed to fit the local conditions: water, weather, local ingredients or trade routes. With the industrial revolution we were able to brew the same beer anywhere in the world, and one style – pilsner – took over.
Craft brewers in the U.S. brought back the idea of local beer. Local beer is likely to be fresh, and fresh beer is always better than stale beer. We’re striving to take the idea of local beer another step, back to its roots, when local not only meant fresh but also distinctive, shaped by location or terroir. It’s an idea that drives every recipe we write and every beer we brew.
Teton Valley is blessed with the best water in the world. It’s Teton Mountain glacial runoff, filtered over the course of 300-500 years through Teton granite and limestone before coming to the surface a half-mile from the brewery. It’s clean, pure, slightly sweet, and almost perfect for brewing. I say “almost perfect” because it’s not ideal for every beer style. Like all water, it has a distinctive mineral makeup that favors certain styles of brewing. Ours is most similar to Munich’s water, so it’s great for malty Bavarian-style beers like our Double Vision Doppelbock.
Most breweries treat their water. They filter it, add minerals, and adjust the pH to mimic another city’s water or to optimize it for a particular style of beer. We’re committed to creating Teton Valley beer, so our water is left unmolested, able to shine through in all its sweet glory. That’s been a challenge when we’ve brewed hoppy styles. The water just makes it tougher to extract hops’ bitter flavors.
Over the years we’ve adjusted our recipes and honed our technique. If we treated our water we’d have an easier time brewing and we’d save money. Since we don’t treat the water, we’re forced to use a lot more hops to get the bitterness we’re looking for. That means that for a given level of bitterness, we have a proportionally higher amount of other hop flavors – the citrusy, piney, spicy or tropical fruit nuances that add depth and complexity to our brews. And there’s always some sweet maltiness to add balance.
Unlike our giant beer counterparts, craft brewers do a great job of keeping it local and using their backyard – be it water, ingredients or culture – as an inspiration source for their next craft beer.
Rob Mullin was born in Munich, Germany, the descendent of a long line of moonshiners, bootleggers and speakeasy owners. Weaned on black lager, he grew up to brew his own beer, going professional in 1990 as a brew lackey/delivery boy for Old Dominion Brewing Company in Virginia. After brewing gigs in Manhattan and New Jersey, he eventually made his way to Paradise – the Teton Mountains and Victor, Idaho. He’s in his 12th year as Brewmaster at Grand Teton Brewing Company, and still loving every minute of it.