by Kevin Wise
How does one go about building a Buffalo beer? By that, I’m referring to the creation of a beer with all Western New York ingredients. I’m referring to a beer that other regions of the world will recognize as an exclusive and unique Buffalo-born beverage filled with heritage and cultivated from the local lands. The ideal Buffalo beer should have a distinct taste profile that cannot be found nor recreated anywhere else in the world.
With wine, such a discussion of beverage profile is commonplace. The terroir (prounced ter-wär) of wine is defined as: “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.” French winemakers developed the concept of terroir by analyzing wines made in different geographical locations. The philosophy of terroir states that wines are inherently a sum of their geographical and human influenced parts, ranging from the mineral composition of the regional soil of to what grape cultivar a winemaker decides to plant.
But is the terroir discussion really all that well suited for discussion of beer? Some large breweries take careful measures to insure that their beer tastes exactly the same across multiple brewery locations in different parts of the world. Such a quality control endeavor is, in some ways, anti-terroir.
So, like wine, is soil the ultimate factor that accounts for wide differences in beer quality? If the goal is to build a Buffalo beer, then the soil and products of the area are important. Brewers must choose four main ingredients, and the selection of these ingredients can be very important in determining the “place” a beer occupies in the beer landscape. Those decisions are: what water to use, what malt to purchase, what hops to choose, and what yeast and/or other organisms to ferment with. Let’s look at each of the four ingredients more closely and examine how a Buffalo beer might be constructed.
Water. Certainly water plays an integral role in the brewing, as beer is 90-95% water. There are famous breweries that highlight the attention given to water composition in beer. Mostly notable is the water quality at Burton-on-Trent. Water in this area of England is characterized by a high concentration of sulfates, bicarbonate, and calcium. Hill Farmstead in Vermont is quick to state that water is a key flavor profile ingredient in their beers. Most breweries agree that Lake Erie water can be readily used for brewing, although many breweries filter to remove high levels of chlorine and other undesirable compounds. Some brewers even add salts and buffers back into beer in an attempt to enhance beer quality.
Malt. Most breweries order their malt from well-established malt suppliers. However, local maltsters have taken root Western New York in an attempt to rekindle the long-lost local art of malting. Robert Johnson of Niagara Malt states that one must become “intimate with your grain,” as factors such as water-sensitivity, pathogen infections, and climate change all play a role in determining the quality of flavor profile of malt. Maltsters might not be able to compete with the low cost of malt obtained from large maltsters from the west, but they certainly can provide uniquely grown malt cultivated in the soil of Western New York.
Hops. Perhaps locally grown hops could contribute to a Buffalo beer terroir. Western New York’s fertile and moist lands allow many different hop strains to be grown successfully. The hotter temperatures in Western New York this summer resulted in slightly smaller cone size and hops that aren’t quite as aromatic. The interaction between plants and local fungal pathogens may also influence the flavor profile of hops. But perhaps the artisanal brewer will decide to explore seasonal hop variability when designing a local Buffalo beer.
Yeast. The multitude of orchards in Niagara and Erie counties possess great potential for putting a localterroir stamp on Buffalo beer. A coolship approach might be envisioned, whereby wort is allowed to ferment with organisms that happen to find their way into an open-air vessel filled with nascent beer. Such a tactic is already employed by numerous breweries including Allagash Brewing Company in Maine. Placing a coolship downwind of a Niagara county orchard might yield interesting and unexpected flavor profiles as fruit yeast find their way across the landscape. Another possibility is aging beer in barrels obtained from local wineries or new distilleries.
So how does a beer capture the Buffalo terroir? The possibilities are endless, but would undoubtedly involve highlighting water, malt and hop crops, and organisms from the region. Locally-sourced beers have already been the focus of numerous festivals, including the popular Farm-to-Pint event. As the maltsters and hop growers continue to learn from and cultivate the land, and as local breweries increase their use of locally grown products, new Buffalo grown beers are bound to emerge.