Well, they do it for wine.
If you produce a wine in Colorado and put California on the label, that’s not just morally bankrupt, it’s distinctly illegal. And if you distill agave in TX and call it tequila, you’ll likely have some badass banditos with guns on the hunt for your sorry ass. But it’s the lawyers with pens that’ll really push your shit in.
Same for distilled white grapes outside of Cognac. Or fortified red wine not produced in Porto. Or whiskey made anywhere but Scotland. And of course bubbly Chardonnay made someplace not called Champagne.
But if the crappy little brewpub down the street releases their new West Coast IPA or Czech Lager or Belgian Wit? Currently no one gives half a fuck.
The French have this beautifully poetic word “terroir”. The Germans came up with something chunkier like Herkunftsgebiet. My good buddy Henry calls it “when your drink takes on the energy of a place”. Which he got from some chick. Which I’d argue all the truly good things that have ever mattered come from.
When something other than fizzy yellow fizz water explodes in your mouth for the first time, it breaks something loose in your soul. It creates memories and moments and monuments in your mind. When you seek out new experiences inspired by that first experience you have become something different. Something deeper. I would argue something so much better.
So there’s this worldwide precedent for defining your drink (and even food) by the region from which it came. Unless you're fermenting grains to make beer. And barely if you distill that to make spirits.
Commercialism and corporate branding have gripped the beer industry like a 15 yr old boy choking all the chickens.
Brands like Budweiser, Stella Artois, Sutter Home, Coors, - - they all initially built their brands around a place. A thing. An experience. When you couldn’t get a Stella in your state or when you first heard the history of Hoegaarden or saw them pouring Kwak in that weird-ass glass that newness bred an excitement. And it was awesomely transcendent. So even Budweiser and its myriad of faux-craft brands were once tied to a time and place. Except maybe Shock Top. Actually for sure not fucking Shock Top.
But fuck you if you don’t think it would have been badass to double-fist it at Bud’s St. Louis facility on the Tuesday that America finally passed the 21st Amendment. I would argue these experiences make you a better person the way that hugging everyone within a 10ft radius did when you shoved a Molly under your tongue back in college. It opens your mind, it tickles your senses and it skips you one rock further down the road to universal love.
Enter 2021 and now it seems like marketing is terroir’s tyrannical team-leader.
Us not-boomers will remember the first time we had a pre-Heineken Newcastle or a pre-Diageo Killian’s at those out-dated European bars that haven’t seemed to be able to stay relevant during this last craft beer revolution. Us Gen-X, Y and even Z-ers had a Guinness there too and were blown entirely away. I can tell you from experience that it’s nothing compared to drinking one in a pub overlooking the sea on the West coast of Ireland but ours was an experience greater than the liquid in the glass.
Have you ever had a New Belgium 1554 black ale in the shadow of the mountain of Peak 9 in Breckenridge after a full day of snowboarding powder? Ever sat on a pristine beach in Jamaica running the range of Appleton Estate rums while watching the ridiculously beautiful sunset that seems to stretch on forever in all directions? How about tasting wine in the gorgeous tasting room of Sherwin Family on Spring Mountain (which fucking burned in the 2020 fires) on the East ridgline of Napa Valley at 10am Sunday morning with a bit of hangover? Did you ever drink Abita Amber at 8am in Houma, LA watching the Crewe of Whatever at the Mardi Gras parades as a warm-up for a full day in the City that somehow didn’t end until well after midnight? Ever started to feel a bit buzzed as the room filled up with the aroma of Tennessee whiskey as you and the other tourists shook the wooden cap over the charcoal mellowing vat at the Jack Daniel’s distillery? I’m sure you’ve slammed a case of salted Dos Equis bottles while slamming a tequila slammer in Cancun every third beer. Maybe even at 16 years old. But have you ever climbed under leaky pipes on a tiny sidestreet to enter a brick building that maybe should have been condemned just so you could taste Yuengling at the source?
I’ve done at least all of those. I’ve also waited in line to give my ID to wait in line to get inside the building to wait in line to order a beer to wait in line to get a seat to drink my beer in at Russian River Brewing. A brewery I’ll always love but an experience I most definitely didn’t. I’ve also ordered a flight of beers after hunting down a brewery in a warehouse district and all of them had noticeable off-flavors. I’ve even hosted bottle-shares where the worst beer of the night was the hardest to get and the best-rated on the interweb of bullshit.
So many brands today tie themselves to an inspiring sense of place with a disappointing lack of authenticity. Tito’s Vodka sells a largely flavorless drink that claims to represent Austin in TX and TX in the USA and even abroad. But them and Deep Eddy Vodka aren’t fermenting anything in TX because it’s cheaper to source and you and your friends don’t seem to want to care. And I'm not sure I do, either. Zilker Brewing in ATX is around 6 miles from the actual Zilker Park, or 3.9 hours in Austin traffic. Pecan Street Brewing in Downtown Johnson City is actually on Pecan Street. But their beers have words like German, Vienna, English so what does their latitude and longitude mean to the beer? Well over half of the brown-water distilleries in TX bottle a product not created solely within the rather expansive boundaries of the State Davy Crockett and company defended to the death at the Alamo. But even Ty and Tommy (who do) at my favorite TX distillery, Andalusia Whiskey, named their malt house after some peninsular region of Spain that like, does horses good and stuff.
There is no Houston Brewing Company but there's Buffalo Bayou which doesn't make beers that taste like muddy water anymore than Galveston Island makes salty beer. If Austin Beer Works set out to make a beer that tastes like the capitol city smells I wouldn't drink it. I'd be excited to see what a terroir-driven beer from Wild Acre would taste like - until I found out that they were neither wild nor on acreage but instead their brewery was in the shadow of two of biggest highways in the country. These guys all make fine beer, just not derivative of their local area.
So can a profitable beer or spirits business even be terroir driven in 2021? I’d argue no. But founders, investors and fans seem to be arguing yes every day. With their money, their word-of-mouth and their social posts.
When it comes to regulating regional authenticity, consumers seem to belly up the bar with an empty fuck bucket.
German Pilsner tastes amazing when Live Oak brews it under the shade trees in Austin. But the question is, do you consider it German? Should you consider it German? Should they be allowed to call it German?
Unlike most of my rants, I’m not pretending to have the answers here. I’m truly curious what you think.