Terroir need not affect our beer. A feature of the postmodern era is that we can easily choose to avoid that sense of place—in fact, that’s become our default position as brewers.
The effects of soil and weather on hops and barley are muted into useful consistency by blending and processing to spec. Yeast catalogs are fetishistic, promising the ability to ferment any sort of style from anywhere else in the world. We strip our water down to nothing and rebuild, aiming to imitate profiles from any other place and time besides our own. Right to our doorsteps, we order tropical adjuncts grown on the other side of the planet.
Does that mean that terroir is irrelevant to beer? No. It only means that terroir has become a choice. It is the choice to limit your options, to be stubborn about using something that comes from your place, to re-embrace an old-fashioned kind of sincerity—and, in the process, to produce something that nobody else can.
Over the years we’ve written about (and recorded podcasts with) numerous North American brewers who have made that choice to limit their choices, to make beers that somehow taste of their places—such as Jester King in Texas, Wolves & People in Oregon, Garden Path in Washington State, Wheatland Spring in Virginia, and more.
For other perspectives—and to get an idea of how the whole paradigm of “farmhouse brewing” is expanding and shifting—we are spotlighting three European breweries: Eik & Tid in Norway, Kemker Kultuur in Germany, and Antidoot in Belgium. Each is brewing with mixed cultures its own way, and each is inspired as much by what contemporary brewers have done as by the cultures and histories of their own places in the world.
Eik & Tid
“Basically,” says Amund Polden Arnesen, cofounder of Eik & Tid, “this is the psychedelics of brewing.”
He continues: “You think you know what the world is for modern brewing—reading homebrew books, talking to pro brewers. And then you come and see this farmer who’s never heard of John Palmer, who doesn’t give a crap about measuring anything. And he does stuff that either is not in the book, or literally the book says, ‘Don’t do this; this will fuck up your beer.’ And that’s what they’ve been doing, and they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years, and it works.”
Arnesen and partner Bjørn Harald Færøvik, both beer aficionados, cofounded Eik & Tid—pronounced something like Ake-oh-Teed—in 2016 in Oslo, Norway. The name means “oak and time,” accurately evoking old methods and slow beer. Indeed, every beer spends time in oak, but there is much more to the beers than that. Eik & Tid embraces their unusual house kveik and the tradition of raw ales—they do not boil their wort—before a more elaborate mixed-culture fermentation happens in barrels or foeders for two months or longer. Then the beers might get additions of dry hops or locally sourced fruit or spices.
By embracing these traditions—namely, raw ale and kveik—“you will create flavors and textures and aromas that you don’t have in modern brewing,” Arnesen says. “And it’s just awe-inspiring.” He says he feels lucky just to live in the region where these traditions are being rediscovered. “Because this is part of our culture—I have access to this. I can go visit these people. Some of these people are now my friends. If I need yeast, I can just ask them.”
“A Stupid Business Idea”
Before Arnesen and Færøvik founded the brewery, the concept had been percolating for years. Both were working in beer education—Færøvik coming from the homebrewing side, Arnesen from hospitality. (Arnesen was the first certified beer sommelier in Norway.) They had the know-how and acumen to follow a more proven model of craft-brewing success.
Instead, they did something far less sensible, and far more interesting.
Starting about 2010, Arnesen says, they heard rumblings of Norwegian brewing traditions that had gone virtually unnoticed outside their villages. Skeptics said they were only using baker’s yeast; others were gradually discovering that kveik was something unique, unmapped, with its own special properties. Before long, Norwegian homebrewers were learning the truth, and Lars Marius Garshol—who would go on to author Historical Brewing Techniques—was blogging about those traditions in English for a wider audience.
At one point, Arnesen went with Garshol to Voss to see one of these brewing sessions in an old shed, with a wood-fired kettle like a giant witch’s cauldron. There, Arnesen says, he held a Mason jar full of kveik and had the palpable feeling that it was something special—and with that, he was hooked. He traveled more with Garshol, discovering raw ales, smoked beers, other traditions, and many more kveiks. “This was just moment after moment of having my mind blown,” Arnesen says.
Besides being inspired by the traditions of their own country, he and Færøvik also were enthusiasts of Belgian lambic as well as the envelope-pushing mixed-culture beers coming out of the United States. “And this sort of contrast between Belgium—share little, change nothing—and America—like, ‘Oh, how can we dissect this? Can we do this? Can we do this?” They liked both ways: “Europe and its traditions and its anchor, and this sort of innovative, no-roots American approach to sour beer. … And it dawned on us: ‘What if we take from both these [approaches] and try to create something out of that?’”
At one point they got to taste beer made by traditional farmhouse brewer Stig Seljeset in Hornindal; he’s the one from whom Garshol sourced the kveik known as Stalljen. The culture is a rapid fermenter, even by kveik standards, and can produce bright tropical-citrus flavors. “The beer we tasted at the time had soured slightly,” Arnesen says, although many traditional brewers consider that sourness to be a fault. “It was a lactic-sour raw beer, with these super-fruity notes from his yeast and the really nice conifer greenness of the juniper in the background. It was just, ‘Yes! This is something to build on.’”
Their idea still forms the basis of Eik & Tid’s method: to make raw ales that are tart and fruit-forward thanks to their fermentation character, using that Hornindal kveik as their workhorse, then to further age them on oak. “And this, of course, is such a stupid business idea that we didn’t write the business plan,” Arnesen says. “That would have stopped us in our tracks.”
These days, notably, many of their brews aren’t bound for beer bottles. Instead, they’re a special kveik-fermented whiskey wash (the fermented liquid that will be distilled for the first time) produced for a local distillery, Det Norske Brenneri, for its Eiktyrne line of whiskies. While Eik & Tid produces only about 300 hectoliters of beer per year (256 barrels), it is now producing another 1,000 hectoliters of whiskey wash. Arnesen says those brews are relatively easy because they ferment and a truck comes to pick them up—no need to package. “So that's a really nice extra income for us, for sure.”
The Liberation of Limitation
Like many traditional raw-ale brewers, Eik & Tid initially brewed hop teas—simply boiled some hops in water—and added them to the wort. These days, they prefer adding the hops directly to the mash—about 10 IBUs worth, apparently just enough to moderate the lactic-acid bacteria without fully inhibiting them.
Starting with their second batch, Eik & Tid has never boiled their wort. They were adamant about that: “By setting quite rigid limitations for ourselves,” Arnesen says, “we will ensure that we have to get creative to make stuff.” They also took inspiration in that approach from various chefs who limit themselves to local, in-season ingredients, as with the New Nordic cuisine associated with Denmark’s famous Noma restaurant.
Eik & Tid also uses only 100 percent Norwegian malts, rather than buying it from Germany or elsewhere. “I mean, if you’re a French grape farmer making wine,” Arnesen says, “you don’t buy Italian grapes.”
Those self-imposed limitations are what define Eik & Tid beers. Arnesen paraphrases his friend Paul Arney of The Ale Apothecary in Bend, Oregon. “He says that if you order everything from a catalog, and the catalog is basically limitless, you’re not going to be creative. And most craft brewers are catalog brewers—they have access to anything they want, any time. So, this is not the easy way to go. You have to figure stuff out.”
As far as they’re aware, nobody before them was intentionally brewing raw ales that undergo mixed-culture fermentation—so they had no reference point. “You can’t just Google it,” Arnesen says. There was a lot of trial and error—and a lot of dumped batches. “We just keep at it until we figure it out—and we have figured out a lot of stuff. And that’s become a way of thinking for us—it doesn’t feel like a limitation anymore. It feels like we are now finding solutions that we never would have found if we [had] started this as a more normal, mainstream, generic craft brewery,” Arnesen says.
If they had started it that way, “we would just be doing what everyone else is doing, and we would have a shitload of debt in the bank, and we would be making an IPA flagship beer. That’s the way it would have gone down. But we can’t make an IPA—we don’t have a boil kettle.”
Rather than borrow money for an unsellable business idea, they took a cue from farmhouse brewers and repurposed old equipment. Their mash tun is a 10-hectoliter (8.5-barrel) round steel vessel once used to cool milk on a dairy farm; they had a local blacksmith forge the false bottom. Arnesen estimates that the whole mash setup cost about €400 (roughly $450). For milling their malt, they found a grinder that farmers used to crush grain for feed; that cost another €500. The rest of their equipment is similarly upcycled and cobbled together, with adjustments made over time. “It was pretty shady in the beginning,” Arnesen says, “but now it’s working fine.”
Eik & Tid does most of their primary fermentation in plastic totes before transferring to oak. Their barrelage includes eight 2,200-liter foeders rescued from abandonment, formerly used by Norway’s government-owned Vinmonopolet, or Wine Monopoly. Each of those foeders operates as a solera system and is never completely emptied—they draw out 1,000 liters (264 gallons) and replace it with 1,000 freshly fermented liters of raw ale. Then it will be about two months of maturation before they can turn to that foeder again. “We can’t do it any faster than that,” Arnesen says. “We just won’t get the correct balance between the reductive and the oxidative flavors in the beer.”
The profile of Eik & Tid beers is unusual and compelling. My own notes, from visits to Norway in 2018 and 2019, mention flavors of lemon and grain, yogurt-like lactic tartness, and a slick, almost savory impression before a dry, refreshing finish. Arnesen says that many people detect a distinct house character of Eik & Tid beers—but that’s not from the kveik. Rather, it has more to do with being unboiled in conjunction with the mixed-culture oak-aging.
Normally, beer gets a lot of flavor from the Maillard reactions of boiling. “It turns out that this is much of what we recognize as beer flavor,” Arnesen says. “Just the absence of that makes this a really different-tasting product.” The color is also paler without the boil, sometimes having a faintly greenish or grayish sheen to it.
The kveik, instead of building flavor, is their workhorse—it gets that primary fermentation done, and it gets it done quickly. In winter, when the wort will cool more overnight, Arnesen pitches the kveik as warm as 106°F (41°C); in summer, he’ll pitch cooler, since the wort will warm up on its own. Either way, most of the fermentation happens closer to 93°F (34°C). Much of the fermentation happens in the first 24 hours, but at Eik & Tid, they give it a week or so to settle.
The oak-aging begins with all those proteins in solution because there was no hot break from the boil or cold break from rapid chilling. The proteins themselves are flavorless, but then something fascinating happens: The lactic-acid bacteria go to work on them, breaking them down into flavor-active amino acids. Arnesen says they believe that creates a subtle umami-like character that some describe as briny or mineral-like—and may be what I noted as “savory.” Arnesen says this umami-like note provides depth for fruit flavors, helping them to pop—even when no fruit is added. Sometimes, he says, the beer has such an intensely fruity profile that people don’t believe them when they say there is no fruit in it.
“This is the true importance of working with fermentation flavors,” Arnesen says. “A lot of stuff that’s happening in the industry these days is about getting away from fermentation flavors. It’s supposed to be clean; it’s supposed to be single-celled … and the flavor goes toward the other ingredients. But the magic and the complexity that you can create from fermentation—we still can’t copy that.”
When their beers are freshly fermented by the Stalljen kveik, Arnesen says it smells and tastes of green mangos and passion fruit. He likes to imagine farmers in 17th-century Norway—who would never have had the chance to taste tropical fruit—enjoying those flavors. “They were having these sensory experiences, and it’s just mind-blowing,” he says. “That is the beauty of fermentation flavors, right? You can create something that is out of this world, and it doesn’t compare to anything else, basically.”
“The essence of our brewery,” Arnesen says, “is to use our own heritage and traditions, to create flavors with a sense of place—with a true sense of place. … That’s what creates and ensures true diversity in any category of food or drink—that is why food and drink traditions are valued, usually.”
He continues: “It’s not that we are Luddites or in opposition to industry or craft in general. It’s just that we feel that there is quite a lot of assimilation in beer-brewing in general these days, and we truly value the importance of having diversity. And we hope that our expression of creation here, and our flavors, contribute to that.”