Beer By Geographical Indication
Although it is not quite so elemental as in the case of wine, ingredient sourcing is an important component of beer. Barley and hops do turn out differently depending on where they're grown. Ingredient-based certifications are common and pretty easy. Here's how the US Patent and Trademark Office describes it (pdf):
“Geographical indications” (“GIs”) are defined at Article 22(1) of the World Trade Organization’s 1995 Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights as “indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographic origin.” Examples of geographical indications from the United States include: “FLORIDA” for oranges; “IDAHO” for potatoes; and “WASHINGTON STATE” for apples.
Americans could follow suit and designate their beer by region. (States make sense, but I suppose you could have "Yakima Valley" as a designation if you could source the ingredients from there.) This has many obvious downsides: 1) only Northern, barley-growing states could ever receive the designation (and even if states in the South could coax a hop crop into producing, it would never be a commercial prospect), 2) except for Oregon and Washington, it would sharply limit the variety of hops brewers could use. On the other hand, it would have some substantial benefits, too. It would: 1) encourage local crop production and create interesting opportunities for farmers, 2) bring biodiversity to brewing, including some probably wonderful new flavors to malts and hops, and 3) give brewers an additional hook to promote their beer locally.
[There would be a few issues to hammer out: yeast and malting. In France, you can win approval if the barley is grown locally, even if it's malted elsewhere. That seems sensible. Yeast is an organism and in no way a product of terroir--so sourcing it from Washington or California doesn't seem verboten, but I suppose you could demand that the yeast be propagated on-site.]
Beer By Regionally-Specific Style
The other way to go is something they call "Traditional Speciality Guaranteed" (TGI) in the European Union. This requires not only that the product use traditional (though not necessarily local) raw materials but also made in a traditional processing method. An example is gueuze, one of the few beers granted a TGI. To be called an oude gueuze, a beer must satisfy all of these conditions:
- Use 30% unmalted wheat (that's part of the traditional raw materials piece).
- Employ spontaneous fermentation.
- Use hops aged at least one year.
- Be refermented in the bottle.
- Contain certain compositional elements measured by a lab, including the presence of brettanomyces, absence of isoamyl acetate, and the presence of other volatile acids (this test confirms the process and aging of the beer).
- Contain one-, two-, and three-year old beer.
I could imagine the US establishing guidelines that would qualify certain beers for "specialty" designation. Corn is the unique native ingredient in American (north and south) beer, and could be a key feature in this designation. The US has a trove of old corn-using styles to dig into--cream ales, sparkling ale, steam beer, American weissbier, Kentucky common--should we want to offer such a designation. Given the standard for gueuze, steam beer might be the best place to start. Designating beers using corn would meet the ingredient criteria (but would, ironically, exclude Anchor), and there are several important elements to the process: the use of coolships, warm-fermenting with lager yeast, and krausening. Kentucky common, championed by a brewery like Bluegrass for example (it was originally a style of Louisville), might be in a prime position to claim the designation.
These designations tend to link the style to a place--Lambics to the region around Brussels--which is a big downside. Should only San Franciscans be able to make steam beer? Should Louisvillians be the only brewers to make Kentucky Common? Doesn't seem quite American. But then, when you restrict, you restrict. No-Li didn't mind that everyone outside Spokane was cut out of their definition (poor Cheney). It might be worth designating some of the old styles if only to revive them.
The Spokane case is a bad one: god forbid we have a separate, useless designation for every city with a brewery in the US. (Wait, is that Milwaukie beer or Milwaukee beer?) But it might be nice if it sparked interest in something more valuable. These are a couple options.