Beck’s, A Lawsuit, and Terroir

My $12.00 check

Earlier this summer I received a check for twelve dollars in the mail. It was my share of a class action lawsuit that had been successfully brought against Anheuser-Busch (A-B). The focus of the lawsuit was Beck’s beer. Beck’s is ostensibly a German beer. The Beck’s brewery was established in the German town of Bremen in 1873. The brewery continues to brew Beck’s until this day, although the brewery, and hence the Beck’s brand, is no longer German-owned. Today it is part of the vast Anheuser-Busch InBev global empire that also includes brands such as Corona, Stella Artois, and Leffe. To the average beer drinker, blissfully unaware of the merger and acquisition activity that is so commonplace in the global beer industry, Beck’s is a German beer.  But Beck’s is not only brewed in Germany. Since 2012 it has also been brewed in the United States, in A-B’s St. Louis, MO brewery. The Beck’s brewed in St. Louis is sold in the American market. Enter lawsuit stage left.

The offenfing label clearly tells the consumer that the product was made in the United States

The lawsuit, filed by Rene Marty et al., alleged that Anheuser-Busch “misrepresented to consumers that Beck’s Beer is brewed in and imported from Germany. Plaintiffs allege that these beers are in fact domestically brewed but priced as a premium imported beer”. The crux of the plaintiff’s argument revolved around the fact that the Beck’s label states that the beer “Originated in Bremen, Germany” and is of “German Quality”. But as noted above the Beck’s sold in the U.S. market is brewed in the U.S.  Actually, it states on the label that it is brewed in the United States – the words “Product of USA” are there, in plain sight, for all to see. However, that did not stop Marty et al. from filing their lawsuit. One of the arguments made by the plaintiffs was that “many breweries in the US and Europe are located in certain areas solely because the water in those regions yield a high quality beer”. And American consumers are willing to pay more for higher quality imported beer, which the Beck’s brewed in the United States, they argue, is not. So you get the picture.

1939 advertisement extolling the virtues of Burton-on-Trent’s water

Raising the issue of water in their lawsuit is interesting. In doing , the plaintiffs were, to some extent, making a terroir argument. Terroir is a concept that is used in the wine industry. It is the idea that the character of the wine grapes (and hence the character of the wine they produce) is highly influenced by local environmental conditions, especially soil and climate. Water has an  influence on the taste of a beer. Today breweries can modify their water supply to to suit different styles of beer. Hence all craft breweries , no matter where they are located, can brew a portfolio of beers that include, for example, pilsners, IPAs, porters, and Scotch Ales. That was not always the case, however, and there are numerous historical examples of particular places brewing a particular style of beer that reflected the characteristics of the local water. The hard water of Burton-on-Trent in England is ideal for making English ales such as Bass, while the soft water of Plzen in the Czech Republic gave rise to the famous Pilsner Urquell. Indeed, in 1939,  an advertisement in the The U.S. Virgin Island’s Daily News  described Burton-on-Trent as “the one spot in the world where the well-water is so obviously intended by Nature for kindly union with those fruits of the earth, to give beer incomparable”. In a more contemporary example Tim Patton, owner of Saint Benjamin Brewing Company in Philadelphia, PA argues that the water in the city of brotherly love is particularly suited to making English-style ales. One of the beer’s brewed by Patton is Baxter’s Best,  described on the brewery’s website as a “dark English session beer brewed with unmodified Philly water from the Baxter Plant”. Yes, the beer is named after one of the city’s water treatment plants.

Michigan centennial hops are being grown at the Lansing Brewing Company in Lansing, MI
Ohio is one of the state’s where hop farming is growing

But water is only one of the basic ingredients that go into the making of beer – the others are hops, malted barley, and yeast.  With repspect to hops three states dominate American hop production  – between them Washington, Oregon , and Idaho produce over 95% of American hops. The recent craft beer boom, however, and the appearance of 4,000+ craft breweries all across the country has seen farmers in nineteen other states enter the hop growing business. Of course the majority of craft beers are brewed using hops from the Pacific Northwest. As more locally-grown hops become available, however, I expect that more breweries will start to utilize and incorporate them into their recipes. And, in all likelihood, the characteristics of these hops will be influenced by the soil and climate of the places where they are grown.  For example, it had been observed that the taste of Citra hops depends upon where they are grown – those grown in Chico, CA have notes of ripe honeydew melon while those grown in Yakima, WA have notes of tropical fruit, particularly mango. The science behind terroir is farirly straightforward. As noted by John Henning, hop geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Oregon, “All plant species have methylated DNA, which causes some genes to be “switched on” more easily than others. Differences in soil, day length, temperatures, amount of rainfall and terrain all may influence the methylation process.”

Moving on to malted barley and yeast, a growing number of craft brewers are sourcing both of these locally.  Regional malting houses that use locally grown barley can now be found in a number of states including Massachusetts, Michigan, and Colorado. In the state of New York over a dozen small malt houses have been established in recent years to serve the state’s 200+ craft breweries. In a recent survey of craft breweries in New York ,eighty-eight percent indicated that they intend to purchase New York-grown malt in the future. Furthermore, seventy percent said that they would be willing to pay a premium for malted barley grown within the state. New York State is an interesting case. On January 1, 2013 the Farm Brewery Law went into effect. The law is designed to encourage craft breweries to use more ingredients sourced from within the state’s borders. If at least twenty percent of a beer’s hops and at least twenty percent of its other ingredients are grown within New York it can be designated as a New York State labeled beer. These percentage minimum thresholds will increase in the future, eventually reaching ninety percent by 2024.

Yeast is perhaps the least locally-sourced of beer’s ingredients. Most yeast used by America’s commercial brewers is isolated, stored and propagated by a laboratory. However, as noted by Erika Bolden “there are a number of experimental breweries that are gathering yeast from their region and isolating it for the purpose of creating beer that better reflects its place.” This is a process called spontaneous fermentation, whereby the wort (beer before fermentation) is exposed  to the air and is so exposed to  naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria. Allagash Brewing in Portland, ME is credited with being the first American brewery to use spontaneous fermentation.  Others breweries have followed Allagash’s lead and have sought to incorporate local yeasts into their beer. Urban Architect is one such brewery. Located in Cincinnati, OH,  Urban Architect sources local wild yeasts leading them to proudly proclaim that “all our beers are wild“. Christian DeBenedetti, the founder of Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery in Newburg, OR has been experimenting brewing a saison using yeast attained from overripe Brooks plums.

What happens in the brewery can overpower any expression of terroir
What happens in the brewery can overpower any expression of terroir

In addition to water, hops, malt, and yeast some brewers are also utilizing more unusual locally sourced ingredients (everything from spruce tips to fresh cherries to chanterelle mushrooms) in order to “convey a sense of the [local] landscape” in their beers. The term foraged beers has been invoked to describe beers that incorporate such locally available ingredients. Such is his passion for using local ingredients in the brewing of beer that one individual, Eric Steen, started a program called Beers Made by Walking (BMBW). Established in 2011 the program “invites brewers to go on nature hikes, and urban walks, and make new beer inspired by the edible and medicinal plants from the trail” and, in doing so, to “create unique beers that give drinkers a sense of place”. BMBW takes its show on the road and in 2015, for example, hosted walks for brewers in eight different American cities. With respect to the walks “each walk is different, each beer is a portrait of that landscape.” Breweries that specialize in using locally-foraged ingredients in their beers include Scratch Brewing Company in Ava, IL. Scratch brew their beers “with a diverse array of farmed and foraged ingredients that showcase the “terroir” of Southern Illinois.” Their brews include Wild Carrot Ale that uses “wild carrot roots and seeds harvested from the property” and Gooseberry Saison whose ingredients include local gooseberries. In a similar fashion Alec Stefansky, owner of Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz, CA uses locally foraged ingredients (including fragrant redwood branches) because he wants “to make flavors that are uniquely Northern Californian.”

As a professional geographer the concept of place is important to me.  Each place is unique in terms of culture, economy, physical environment, and if some of these brewers are successful, then pephaps even beer. It is exciting that a small cadre of brewers are trying to brew beers that capture the unique flavor imparted by local ingredients.

But what about that $12 check I got in the mail? What did I do with it? Well I cashed it of course and put it towards the purchase of a couple of six packs of craft beer.



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