Monday, November 4, 2013

Local is NOT a synonym for quality

NOTE: This post was updated on 11/4/13 at 10:30pm

There’s a trend that’s been gaining traction the last few years that’s been really irritating me. And it’s not strictly limited to the beer industry, but rather the food and drink industries at large. It’s advertising, marketing or branding something as “local” as a way of telling you that the product is high in quality and/or tastes better.

And by “local” I mean the general term local, not local to the Capital District. This notion that local = quality is a false distinction. Just because something is local doesn’t make it good. And just because something’s not local doesn’t make it bad. It it’s time to stop using the term “local” as a marketing gimmick and acknowledge it as the plain old adjective that it is.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-local in any way, shape or form. I appreciate supporting the local economy and small businesses. I understand the pride that comes with buying and selling products that are made locally. However, I find it condescending when a menu points out that a beer or food item is made local ingredients with the implication that it’s of high quality because it’s local. Well, that’s great that it’s local, but is it any good?

farm-to-pint-2There’s really no such thing as truly local beer, anyway

What irks me about the term “local beer” is the fact that, on average, so little of the ingredients that go into making beer are actually from the brewery’s immediate vicinity wherever they’re located. There’s four main ingredients in beer: barley, hops, yeast and water, but only one of them is usually from a local source. So if you think about it, beer isn’t so much made locally as it is assembled locally. Not that beer is made in a factory on an assembly line, just that most of what’s need to make it comes from elsewhere.

For example, here in New York, our breweries don’t use much state-grown barley because this climate really isn’t ideal for it to flourish, nor is the infrastructure in place for it do so anyway (see Craig Gravina’s blog about this from last week). This is true of most locales around the country, except for those actually located in the grain belt.

Brewpubs, micro, nano and farm breweries might get some of their hops from their local hop farms, but the majority of hops used for brewing at the commercial scale come from the massive hop farms located in the Pacific Northwest states. Hops are a major ingredient in beer, but again, only a small minority used in local brewing were grown locally (unless the brewery is located in Oregon or Washington).

Most of the yeast used in commercial brewing comes from laboratories. Though breweries can reproduce, harvest and experiment with their yeast the fact remains it probably didn’t originate from the local area. I’d say only wild yeast captured via open fermentation could truly be considered a local ingredient.

Lastly, there’s the water, which is the most locally-sourced of the four ingredients. Brewing water is treated for pH levels, mineral filtration, and other chemical factors. At a molecular level, the water that’s used for brewing is probably quite similar across the country, so there isn’t much, if any, terroir factor (more on this in a minute).

So if only 25% of a product is made from local materials, can it rightfully be called “local”? Probably not, so why does beer always get a pass?

But… terroir!

Of course there’s the whole “terroir” argument. This is the notion that the vicinity has a profound effect on the taste and quality. It’s a term that’s much more apropos to the wine industry, since grapes are fairly fragile and don’t travel as well as barley and hops. While it’s true that certain regions make beers with similar flavor profiles (e.g. British brown ale, West Coast IPA, etc.), they can be re-created (though maybe not verbatim) using the same ingredients and brewing techniques.

I’d like to think I have a pretty refined palate by now, but I honestly can’t identify terroir when it comes to beer. For example, when a brewery advertises a beer as “made with locally-grown honey,” (or other such ingredient), I’ve never once thought to myself, “Ah yes, this is definitely local honey.” Though even if that were true, the implication is still that I should enjoy it more, or that the product is of superior quality because it is made with a locally sourced ingredient. Who cares? I’d rather it be made with good honey no matter where it comes from.

“Local” is subjective, too

What’s “local” to me is not necessarily local to you. My local brewpub might be just another dining and drinking establishment for me, but for someone out of town it’s a tourist destination. I supposed it’s a Schrodinger effect since the same place is both local and foreign at the same time.

Also, where do you arbitrarily draw the line as to what meets the definition of “local”and what does not? How many miles from your proximity is local? 1? 5? 25? 50? Within the same state? Within walking distance? How can we can so hung up on the localization of everything when the term itself is so relative and arbitrary?

What if your locale is known only for one major, but highly-acclaimed, brewery? Would you consider your area to be a “beer town”? A good example would be the cities of Muenster, Indiana (Three Floyds); Milton, Delaware (Dogfish Head); and Greensboro, Vermont (Hill Farmstead). If you live in the general vicinity of these places you could probably make a legitimate claim that your local brewery is making world class beer. Yet, they’re not the type of breweries you associate with the term “local brewery.” Why not? They’re all local to someone.

Get out of town

The best proof that local does not equal quality is to simply travel to a place not known for its beer. Last spring I went down to Norfolk, Virginia to visit friends.  There were only two local breweries, and we managed to try them both. Guess what? They each made pretty boring, unoriginal, forgettable beer. I don’t know if it was made with local ingredients, but it’s rather irrelevant. Lame beer is lame beer whether it’s made on a two-barrel system or brewed in any the largest brewhouses in the world.

I suppose I could on, but I think I’ve made my point. Local doesn’t necessarily mean good beer. Support breweries that make good beer, whether they’re around the corner or around the world. And let’s stop paying a premium for something just because it’s local.