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Friday, September 12, 2014

The Nature of Indigenous

Boak, Bailey, and Stan have been considering the nature of indigenous beers--what and whether they are, and how that is distinct from "local" beer.  I know Stan has been mulling a high-concept book related to this subject, so I hope the discussion will continue on for years.  In one way, it couldn't matter less--beer is beer and almost no styles exist sui generis, separate from the influences of all others.  On the other hand, it's a critical question in a world in which information, education, and raw materials are unmoored from place.  The great thing about the 21st century is that we can pretty much access anything in the world, so our daily lives are enriched by multinational, multicultural influences.  But it also means that the local and weird may be trampled under the homogenization of international preference.  By spreading each other's materials and cultures, we may endanger them.

As it happens, I've been thinking about this for a long time.  Seven years ago, I wrote a post about this very topic.  A lot of my seven-year-old posts don't bear re-reading, but I may have been onto something when I wrote that one.  You can read the whole thing, but the piece I want to repost (and actually, rewrite a bit--it's not free of mistakes and miscues) involves the elements of indigenous beer:
  • Ingredients. People have made beer for thousands of years, and the grains they used were those that grew in nearby fields: wheat in Egypt, rice in India, sorghum and millet in Africa, barley in Europe.  Many indigenous styles include local additives, from the dates of Egypt to the gruit of Europe, to the cherries in kriek.
  • Method. Some breweries have funky ways of brewing, and these help define style. The slate squares employed in Yorkshire breweries; the spontaneous fermentation of Pajottenland; the smoked lagers of Bamberg; or the lagers fermented warm to create steam beers in San Francisco.
  • Yeast. Many of the world's classic beers emerged from the decades- or centuries-old strains of yeast. In many (most?) cases, yeast strains are connected to locations where they originated and consequently are one of the chief elements that define styles.
  • New Variations. Sometimes styles emerge by remixing the ingredients, methods, or yeasts to produce a beer recognizably different.  Stan mentions American pilsner as a possible indigenous style, and it would fit under this clause.  It was a style that couldn't be adapted to the US, with its harsh barley, without the addition of local corn.
  • "Localness." What has guided many brewers through time wasn't necessarily a desire to be innovative, but restraints of locality. They used what they had. In the age before industrialization, hops, grains, adjuncts, and water all had to be local. The character of the beer has historically been a reflection of the place it was brewed. The physical imperative is gone in the age of globalization, yet artisanal beers are still predominantly local products.
 Stan's got a nice discussion going on, so check out the comments if you visit his post.


  1. Thanks for recruiting more people to the conversation, Jeff. I'm pretty sure there with be a book about indigenous beers and I'm pretty sure I won't be the author. Too dangerous given my compulsive, over-research everything nature.

    But I am glad you mention the smoked beers of Bamberg. I don't see those on most indigenous lists, but Grodziskie shows up on many of them. We're talking about two towns (Bamberg and Grodzisk) where brewers simply continued to use smoked malt (one barley, one wheat) when other places which previously used smoked malt quit.

    I'm not sure that makes it indigenous. It does make it unique to each of those places. And how does it relate to local and native?

    Did I mention over-think as well as over-research?

  2. There is no such thing as over-research. There is a very common thing called under-research.