One of the things that the Butter Bitch and I enjoy doing on vacation is to explore local beer scene. This is a common pastime for visitors to Europe, which has a thriving beer culture, but is even more exciting in the United States. Prior to Prohibition (1920-33), the United States had a thriving brewing culture, as noted by John P. Arnold in Origin and History of Beer and Brewing.
After the repeal of Prohibition, the Great Depression and consolidation of brewing led to giant breweries and the production of a few national beers, light-bodied lagers that were surprisingly similar to one another. A number of regional breweries - Henry Weinhard's in Oregon, Olympia Brewing, or "Oly," in Tumwater, Washington, Leinenkugel's in Wisconsin - survived, though Weinhard's and Oly have been consumed by brewing industry giants.
Beers of the post-Prohibition period were brewed to be cheap, to have consistent quality, to be easy to drink, and to capture as much market share as possible. People went to Europe to experience good beer and returned to the odd claims of quality from American brewers.
There's an old joke among beer drinkers that brewers drink the best and sell, or export, the rest. The resurgence of small batch, craft brewing has illustrated the truth behind that joke.
Yeast produces alcohol and also affects the flavor and smell of beer, making choosing yeast an important decision. Grains provide maltose, the sugar that yeast transforms into alcohol, as well as coloring and flavoring. Longer boiling times and darker roasts are used to produce beers with intense colors and rich flavors. Hops fulfill three roles, preserving beer, adding bitterness and floral qualities to the beer's flavor, and enhancing the aromatic quality of the beer.
Brewers vary and experiment with the first three ingredients, sometimes choosing wild yeast for fermentation or dry hopping - the process of adding whole hops to improve flavor and aroma without increasing bitterness.
Although brewers have numerous options regarding the ingredients that make a beer, there is one ingredient that is bound to their locality. To borrow a phrase from Oly, "It's the water."
Brewers often tout the quality of their water supply, whether it is "free range coast water," "pure artesian water," or some similar claim. Water must be of high quality, or the brewers will be faced with two choices: Treat the water to maintain consistency, or produce beer that has unpleasant characteristics.
I experienced the difference of water quality first-hand when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I brewed beer and mead using two different water supplies, neither of which was Hetch-Hetchy. Although I thought I detected a difference in the taste of ales brewed at both locations, I had visible evidence of the difference when I brewed mead.
Mead begins with a high gravity, meaning that the initial sugar measurements are high, and the performance of the yeast depends not only on the yeast but also the ratio of magnesium to calcium. I learned this fact about mineral content after the batch at the first location fermented for 6 weeks and a batch at the second location brewed for a mere two weeks, despite similar conditions. By adding magnesium to a third batch, I increased the fermentation time, but the batches just weren't the same as at the first location. The water quality of the first location was better than the water in my Berkeley apartment.
Age and traveling
On the whole, beer is better where it is brewed for simple reasons. The beer has not traveled far, and the beer is fresh. Some high-alcohol beers are meant to be aged, despite the view of certain federal agencies, but many beers should be consumed in a timely manner. Lightly hopped beers, including light ales and lagers, lack the hop preservatives to last a long time. Other brews, such as the India Pale Ale, have sufficient hopping to survive a long time - say, travel by boat from England to India.
We are always surprised when a beer from a distant brewery tastes good, but often the quality can be attributed to heavy hopping. Hopping alone cannot protect beer for long from temperature extremes or the shaking of a road trip or sea journey. Locally brewed beer will have features that do not survive long distances, such as live yeast and delicate flavors. Live yeast, sometimes used in bottle fermentation, continues to impart flavors and enhance beer. Transport often means that the beer is bottled, which changes the flavor to varying degrees.
Drinking beer on tap is preferred, in part to avoid the effects of bottle shock. There is no way of knowing whether a keg or bottle has been transported under proper conditions until the beer is tasted, by which time it may be too late. Another problem is that keg lines must be cleaned, or dirty lines will foul the beer. One local establishment, Tap House Grill, keeps their lines clean despite serving 160 beers on tap.
Locality won't protect a beer if it is kept for too long or kept under poor. During a visit to Kent, England, the Butter Bitch and I experienced a porter that had "gone off," tasting more like balsamic vinegar than beer. We sent the beer back and ordered IPAs.
Arnold, writing in 1911, closed his book with an apt prophecy.
Should the prohibition movement in the United States ever succeed, some of these numerous time-honored family receipts [sic] of the 17th and 18th centuries, together with the art of home-brewing, will beyond doubt again have their day.
Locality will allow you to experience the pride of local artisans, known as brewers. This pride, along with innovation and a desire for good beer, has fueled the craft beer revival of the past three decades. Enjoy.