The beer boom in America means that, with an estimated 4,000 plus breweries in America right now, one of them is probably not far from you regardless of where you live. Unlike the past couple generations of brewers, most of these new establishments have lower levels of production and smaller distribution areas intended to serve a more localized community. Resulting in, quite possibly, a greater sense of pride for communities’ neighborhood brewery. But to what extent is your local beer really local? It’s probably brewed locally (though not always; some “local” breweries still contract out to larger brewers who might be surprisingly far from home) but what about the ingredients? Where did this beer really come from?
The San Antonio Current recently ran an article entitled, “How Texan Is Our Beer, Really?” For states like Texas – and plenty others fit the bill – many of the components of beer aren’t easy to come by. It serves as a reminder that where a beer says it’s from rarely reflects where its ingredients came from.
Texas certainly isn’t a hops mecca like Washington. In fact, one brewer went so far as to say, “There is no such thing as Texas hops. Hops don't grow here, unless they are babied, and then the yield is small.” Texas doesn’t produce much barley suitable for beer either. Up until a few years ago, the grain was only grown for livestock feed. At least one small company has gotten into the business of producing grains for beer recently, but they don’t produce enough to meet Texas’s demand.
Beer’s third main ingredient, yeast, can be a major wild card too – somewhat literally. Though it’s certainly possible to brew with native wild yeast, since the outcome is far more difficult to control than by pitching commercial yeast, few brewers actually do.
That leaves beer’s final core ingredient: water. Of course, water is relatively easy to source locally throughout the US (assuming we avoid discussing things like California’s current drought). And water does affect a beer’s taste. As the Current writes, discussing Texas beers, “the moderate hardness of our aquifers contributes to our flavor profiles.” But it means that for many beers, as far as ingredients are concerned, water is as local as beer really gets.
Not to say that the current influx of local breweries isn’t awesome. Beyond supporting the local community economically and socially, they’re creating beers that reflect a unique local voice that can help define a region, a state or even a neighborhood. But it’s also interesting to consider the extent to which these local beers aren’t truly local in the same way locally grown produce or even locally produced wine might be. For most of the country, beer is a local business with inevitable non-local ties.